Agencies vary in classification of accidental shootings

Dr. David Fowler has seen just about every kind of shooting death come across his desk in his years as Maryland’s medical examiner.

There are the incidents that stem from violence and other criminal activity, such as gang shootings and drug deals turned violent.

And then there are the incidents that are far more innocuous—maybe a group of friends hanging out, playing with a gun, and it’s fired by accident.

As different as those shootings are, they’re all classified the same in Fowler’s eyes.

They’re homicides.

“A firearm is a weapon,” Fowler said.

And until there’s a ballistics investigation that determines whether there was a technical problem with the firearm that caused it to go off unintentionally, these types of accidental shooting deaths are ruled homicides.

Police may categorize them differently, however.  

“We’re not giving a legal judgment,” Fowler said.

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National research shows the numbers of accidental shootings have dropped dramatically since the 1980s, though that could be partially due to how they are coded by medical examiners like Fowler.

Fowler said he sees hundreds of shooting deaths a year. Police might classify many of them as accidental.

He can only think of one such incident that he ruled as an accidental death, and that was at least a decade ago.

A man was transporting a loaded gun inside a carrying case, and the lock on the gun malfunctioned and it fired. It hit him in the shoulder, and he died.

This is typical of how medical examiners categorize accidental shootings, Fowler said.   

Ronald Singer, past president of the American Association of Forensic Sciences, said medical examiners can’t and won’t determine intent.

But they can look at several factors to determine if what happened was really an accident, such as the distance at which the gun was fired, gunshot residue and whether the firearm malfunctioned.

How they are logged “will vary from office to office,” said Singer, technical and administrative director for the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office in Fort Worth, Texas.

Det. Sgt. Steve Hall of the Maryland State Police said the police characterize shootings differently than the medical examiner’s office.

“If one person shoots another person, it doesn’t matter what the circumstances are, it’s a homicide,” Hall said. “They look at the medical aspect of it, while we have to look at the intent of the person.”

For example, if a man has a gun in his house and it goes off by accident and kills his wife, that’s not likely to result in criminal charges or be considered a homicide by police.

“It’s case-specific,” Hall said.

Hall, though, said the decrease in the number of accidental shootings might have nothing to do with how they are officially recorded.

“I would say one of the reasons the numbers are down is because people are becoming more educated on firearm use,” Hall said.

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