Careers in Ballistics Investigation
Careers in Forensics Series
Copyright 2008 by the Rosen Publishing Group, Inc.
Age Level: Middle School
The first call came in at 7:15 am. Gunfire was reported at the West Ambler Johnston Hall dormitory at Virginia Tech. Two people killed by an unknown shooter. Police rush to the scene, believing the shooting to be an isolated incident. The university administration, believing the danger to be past, sends out an email to the campus community telling them to look out for anything suspicious.
But then, at 9:45, a new set of calls; another shooter, or the same one, was terrorizing students and teachers at Norris Hall, on the other side of campus. By the time police got there, the gunman had killed thirty-one people and taken his own life.
In the fear and confusion surrounding the first reports of the shootings at Virginia Tech university on April 16, 2007, very little was known for sure: how many dead and wounded there were, who the killer was, what his motive could possibly be for taking lives. At first, the police were not even sure there was only one killer, or that the two incidents were related, since the shootings occurred on different ends of the campus.
Within a day of the attacks, however, ballistics tests had definitely proven that both weapons–a Glock 19, a handgun, and a semi-automatic Walther P22 pistol–had been fired at both locations. Fingerprinting revealed that both guns belonged to the dead shooter, Seung-Hui Cho. The findings were clear: there was no other gunman responsible for that tragedy.
The Virginia Tech shootings provided a horrifying illustration of the central importance of ballistics to crime scene investigations. “Get me Ballistics!” barks the TV cop, and the next scene shows a man or woman in a lab coat bending over a microscope. “These two bullets don’t match; it’s not your guy!” That’s the fictionalized version of what such an investigation looks like. But as you might suspect, there is lot more to how ballistics is used in crime investigations than just a few minutes spent comparing bullet casings.
First of all, “ballistics” is a word you may hear tossed around a lot on TV shows and in movies, but the kind of ballistics that is used to solve crime is called forensic ballistics. “Ballistics” by itself simply means the science that deals with the motion, behavior, and effects of projectiles. A projectile is anything that is thrown, hurled, fired, or launched. This can include bullets as well as rocks hurled by a catapult, baseballs thrown by a pitcher, and even rockets shot into space.
Ballistics can also mean the science or art of designing and hurling projectiles in a way that will make them fly to a desired distance or height, or to hit a target.
Forensic ballistics, on the other hand, is the science of analyzing firearm usage in crimes. It also involves analysis of bullets and bullet impacts at a crime scene to discover more information about a crime.
Dr. Zeno Geradts is a forensic scientist at the Netherlands Forensic Institute of the Ministry of Justice. He started out as a physicist, but ended up working in ballistics and digital forensics. On his Web page, www.forensic.to, he lists why you might want to become a forensics investigator.
According to Geradts, the benefits include:
- The result of your work is visible and concrete.
- You have a high level of responsibility.
- Every case is unique.
- It can be exciting and interesting to work in a forensic laboratory with investigators from different fields, and to do joint research with colleagues.
Yet Geradts is clear-eyed about the downside of his profession. He says that distasteful, difficult, and tedious aspects of the job included:
- Some criminal cases can have a high impact on you emotionally.
- Your work load can get very heavy at times.
- You can spend a lot of time waiting to be called into courtrooms at inconvenient times.
- Because keeping good records is so important, you will have to do a lot of paperwork.
- Sometimes you may have to deal with calls or emails from reporters while you’re working on an investigation or during the trial phase of a criminal case.
- You have to deal with criticism and cross-examination of your work.
- You might have to admit that you drew a wrong conclusion.
- You might not always get to use an investigative technique you want if it is not considered valid in the courtroom.
Like any career, forensic ballistics investigation has its challenges. However, the rewards and excitement of helping to solve crimes make it an attractive career for many scientists and law enforcement professionals.