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6 reasons why your agency needs a certified firearm specialist

Personnel with proven comprehensive firearms knowledge help prevent costly accidents, mistakes and legal battles


Being a range instructor or even a firearm/toolmark examiner isn’t enough to equip you for the situations where technology meets difficult-to-maneuver gun laws.

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Having taught hundreds of multi-day firearm technology seminars to law enforcement personnel, the most common comment heard from LE personnel after a seminar is “I wish I’d had this training 20 years ago!” The irony is, the most common comment prior to this type of training is, “I already know everything about guns.”

Let’s test your firearms knowledge. Do you know the answers to these questions?

  • Why is one 12 gauge firearm legally allowed to have a 9” barrel, while another has a 16” barrel but is a felony to possess?
  • What does the second number “30” refer to in the name of the .30-30 Winchester cartridge?
  • What four categories of shootable and deadly firearms are exempt from federal gun laws?
  • What are the legalities of building a homemade “ghost gun”? What element, if missing, makes a “ghost gun” prosecutable in state court but not in federal court?

The list of confusing questions about firearms and ammo technology is long, and not knowing the answer to a technical question about firearms or ammunition can be costly to law enforcement.

The truth is that LE personnel are only taught how to shoot, when to shoot and maybe how to repair the gun models that we carry. But what do you do when your need for gun knowledge in the field goes beyond that?

Consider that there are 393 million guns in private hands in the U.S., that’s 120.5 guns for every 100 residents. Your chances of encountering them regularly are definite. As a result, your agency needs to have personnel who can ensure that firearms are accurately identified and classified so that court cases are not lost due to misidentification, violations are not overlooked, no injuries occur during handling, and arrests are not made for something that is not illegal.

Being a range instructor or even a firearm/toolmark examiner isn’t enough to equip you for the situations where technology meets difficult-to-maneuver gun laws. Here are six reasons why your department needs to go the extra mile and have one or more certified firearm specialists:

1. Avoid overlooking serious felony violations

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Daniel O’Kelly

Pictured above are several small gadgets considered by the ATF to be machineguns just by themselves. They don’t shoot, but the simple drop-in installation of them allows a certain model of a gun to fire fully-automatic. The fact that such gadgets are easily made at home from common materials allows for them to be commonly encountered by law enforcement, and failure to recognize them allows violations to go unchecked.

Other examples of overlooking a violation are that the mere frame of a gun, although not always recognized, is a firearm by itself. Also, ammunition components are legally considered “ammunition” by themselves, even spent shell-casings. The ability to field-test an empty gun for full-auto capability is another valuable tool that helps avoid overlooking violations of law, and there are many more.

2. Avoid accidents due to improper gun handling

The saying is that there are two kinds of gun-handlers: those who’ve had an accidental/unintentional discharge and those who will.

Most classes of instruction will teach you that there are two places to check for ammunition in a gun (magazine or cylinder, and chamber); however, there are actually four places! There are also five safety considerations when test-firing a firearm. Do you know what they are?

Many LE personnel have never heard of a gun that fires from an open-bolt. In such a design, the gun is meant to fire a cartridge upon chambering it. And many accidental/unintentional discharges of a firearm result from the untrained handling of a modified firearm equipped with any number of after-market gadgets designed for various purposes. Of course, most accidental and unintentional discharges with injury result in expensive civil suits.

3. Avoid arrests for non-violations

These are embarrassing, can lead to civil suits and are a waste of resources.

The ability to classify firearms allows the specialist to know the legal difference between a pistol, a shotgun, a rifle, or an “other firearm” (which is neither a handgun nor a shotgun nor rifle) and which is not required to be registered with the ATF.

Also, knowledge of the quirks in ATF rulings allows the specialist to avoid embarrassment by knowing things such as blank cartridges are not “ammunition” despite the fact that each of the three components that make them are ammunition separately. Well-developed knowledge of the category known as Curios and Relics will also allow the specialist to recognize those guns that would otherwise warrant an arrest for possession of an unregistered short-barreled rifle or shotgun but have been exempted. Again, civil suits for malicious prosecution and unlawful seizure of property can be avoided.

4. Avoid misidentification of evidence

It is believed that if you were to inventory the average law enforcement evidence vault, you would find any number of firearms listed as “Smith & Wesson” although they were actually manufactured by another company for use with ammunition invented by the Smith & Wesson company, and which only bears that notice.

There is the propensity for tinkerers to build their own firearms based on a classic design, such as the 1911 pistol or AR15, by using mixed parts made by any combination of other companies. As a result, the slide may say “COLT” as clear as day, although the firearm (frame) was actually manufactured by another company. Unhappy and embarrassed is the LE witness to whom this fact is displayed in court by a defense attorney asking, “Where is the Colt that you reportedly took from my client?”

You’ve also undoubtedly heard of “ghost guns” manufactured from home-made frames. That topic alone makes even some firearm laboratory personnel nervous when it comes time to be grilled about them in court by the defense.

5. Learn the overall ability to explain the facets of firearms

Defense attorneys have the liberty of letting the answer to one question bring about another question and do so indefinitely. For that reason, a firearm or ammunition witness needs to be able to explain more than just the definition into which a firearm falls. For example, being able to explain the eight steps that occur between the firing of one shot and the next are what can silence an attorney versus inviting them to do more digging. Also, being able to simply explain the differences between firearms that reload their own chamber automatically and those eight types that do not is key knowledge that establishes your credibility.

6. Become clear about ammunition: Normally a very confusing topic

For many people, ammunition is the most confusing facet of the firearm field. It becomes simple after you learn that the source of the confusion is the various naming systems used since metallic cartridges were invented. Armed with this information, a specialist can determine what counts as ammunition in support of a criminal prosecution and what does not.

Knowledge of ammunition components allows recognition of such things as armor-piercing cartridges and those that require ATF registration to avoid prosecution. This means you will be able to quickly convert in your head that an exotic-sounding cartridge marked 7.62x63 is actually an American-designed .30 ’06 hunting cartridge manufactured in a metric-system country.

Become “bulletproof”

When an attorney really wants to test and discredit you on the stand, there is nothing they can ask which a certified firearm specialist cannot answer. You can become “bulletproof” in the field and in court.

Daniel O’Kelly is the director of the International Firearm Specialist Academy. He uses his 34-year career experiences as a police officer and retired ATF Agent to raise the bar on firearm knowledge among law enforcement personnel. He is a former ATF National Academy instructor, where he co-wrote the ATF firearm training and has taught at the International LE Academies in Europe and Africa. He regularly teaches seminars at major law enforcement agencies nationwide.