Deadly Force or Not? Visual and Cognitive Interpretation of Rifles and BB Guns in Crime-Scene Context


Although handguns still predominate in gun crimes, rifles are increasingly employed by perpetrators. Little is known about how rifles are visually and cognitively interpreted, or about the degree to which actual rifles can be distinguished from less-lethal or non-lethal replicas. The present research represents an initial effort in this area. Respondents were shown photographs of a realistic crime scene in which a male “assailant” aimed a long gun at a “victim.” One of three weapons was depicted for each respondent: a bolt-action rifle, a lever-action rifle, or a BB gun. Respondents were asked to make a timed “shoot/no-shoot” decision about the scene, based on assessment of threat to the “victim.” They were then asked to identify the type of weapon they had seen, and to describe features of that weapon. It was shown that rifles were identified correctly with a significantly higher frequency than was the BB gun, which was typically identified as an actual rifle or shotgun. No differences were observed between weapons in terms of recognition, correct features identified, or of excessive precision in attempted identification. However, the bolt-action rifle was correctly identified as such more frequently than was the lever-action rifle, which in turn was identified correctly more frequently than the BB gun. Most importantly, “shoot” decisions, and time to shoot, did not differ significantly between the lethal rifles and the non-lethal BB gun. This research has practical ramifications for the criminal justice system regarding the perception and cognitive processing of rifles and less- or non-lethal replicas, in the areas of eyewitness memory and of “shoot/no-shoot” decision making.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. Ahlberg SW, Sharps MJ (2002) Bartlett revisited: Reconfiguration of long-term memory in young and older adults. J Genet Psychol 163:211–218

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  2. Associated Press (2007) Police: man pointed cordless drill at officer. Retrieved February 15, 2007, from

  3. Bartlett FC (1932) Remembering: A study in experimental and social psychology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  4. Bergman ET, Roediger HL (1999) Can Bartlett's repeated reproduction experiments be replicated? Mem Cogn 27:937–947

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Clifford BR, Richards VJ (1977) Comparison of recall by policemen and civilians under conditions of long and short durations of exposure. Percept Mot Skills 45:503–512

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Force Science News (2009) I. New study: when civilians would shoot…and when they think you should. Force Science Research Center, Transmission #117.

  7. Fresno Bee (2014) Rifle-toting robbers hit Sonic in Clovis. The Fresno Bee. p A5

  8. Fresno Bee (2014) Triple-murder suspect caught. The Fresno Bee. p A11

  9. Grossman D (1996) On killing. Little, Brown, Boston

    Google Scholar 

  10. Grossman D (2004) On combat. PPCT Research Publications

  11. Hope L, Lewinski W, Dixon J, Blocksidge D, Gabbert F (2012) Witnesses in action: The effect of physical exertion on recall and recognition. Psychol Sci 23:386–390

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  12. MSN (2013) Boy with toy gun shot and killed by Calif. Deputies. Retrieved June 17, 2014,

  13. Moore L (2006) Conference on the use of force in law enforcement. Office of the United States Marshal, Fresno

    Google Scholar 

  14. Montejano D (2004) Fresno Police Department Conference on stress in police work. Fresno Police Department, Fresno

    Google Scholar 

  15. Office of the California Attorney General (2010) Firearms used in the commission of crimes. Retrieved June 17, 2014

  16. Pearson M (2012) Gunman turns “Batman” screening into real horror film. Retrieved June 17, 2014, from

  17. Sharps MJ (2003) Aging, representation, and thought: gestalt and feature-intensive processing. Transaction, Piscataway

    Google Scholar 

  18. Sharps MJ (2010) Processing under pressure: stress, memory, and decision in law enforcement. Looseleaf Law, Flushing

    Google Scholar 

  19. Sharps MJ (2012) The mental edge: Effective cognitive processing in law enforcement. Police Chief 79:100–105

    Google Scholar 

  20. Sharps MJ, Barber TL, Stahl H, Villegas AB (2003) Eyewitness memory for weapons. Forensic Examiner 12:34–37

    Google Scholar 

  21. Sharps MJ, Herrera M, Dunn L, Alcala E (2012) Repetition and Reconfiguration: Demand-Based Confabulation in Initial Eyewitness Memory. J Investig Psychol Offender Profiling 9:149–160

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Sharps MJ, Herrera M, Lodeesen A (2014) SMOKE: Effective cognitive and field training for IED detection. Forensic Examiner 23:1–25,

  23. Sharps MJ, Hess AB (2008) To shoot or not to shoot: Response and interpretation of response to armed assailants. Forensic Examiner 17:53–64

    Google Scholar 

  24. Sharps MJ, Hess AB, Casner H, Ranes B, Jones J (2007) Eyewitness memory in context: Toward a systematic understanding of eyewitness evidence. Forensic Examiner 16:20–27

    Google Scholar 

  25. Sharps MJ, Janigian J, Hess AB, Hayward B (2009) Eyewitness Memory in Context: Toward a Taxonomy of Eyewitness Error. J Police Crim Psychol 24:36–44

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Sharps MJ, Newborg E, Glasere M, Hayward B, Scholl M (2010) Finding IED’s before they find you: the SMOKE system of training for hazardous device detection. Forensic Examiner 19:48–58

    Google Scholar 

  27. Sharps MJ, Nunes MA (2002) Gestalt and feature-intensive processing: Toward a unified model of human information processing. Curr Psychol 21:68–84

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. United States Bureau of Justice (1995) Guns used in crime. Retrieved June 12, 2014, from

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Matthew J. Sharps.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Herrera, M.R., Sharps, M.J., Swinney, H.R. et al. Deadly Force or Not? Visual and Cognitive Interpretation of Rifles and BB Guns in Crime-Scene Context. J Police Crim Psych 30, 254–260 (2015).

Download citation

Key Words

  • Shoot/No Shoot Decisions
  • Long Guns
  • Rifles/Replicas/BB Guns
  • Eyewitness Memory