The Ballistics Expert

In the Newark Police Ballistics Laboratory in New Jersey, Sgt. Luke Laterza has folders put aside that detail the forensic characteristics of one particular gun he hasn’t been able to recover yet.

The gun, he says, has been used in four different murders.

“I do not want to put these folders away because I know sooner or later, the men and women in the police department … are going to take this gun off the street, and it is going to come to my lab,” says Laterza, “And I’m going to close out that job.”

Laterza is a firearms examiner for the Newark Police department. Gun recoveries and investigating shootings and homicides make up 90% of his work, he says.

Evidence from a crime scene is brought to his lab, where he and others conduct operability tests and microscopic examinations on discharged cartridge casings, shot shells and projectiles. They can restore serial numbers on firearms in cases where someone may have tried to scratch off the identification so it could not be traced.

They analyze marks, grooves and striations in bullets and shell casings in an attempt to match the projectiles to specific guns and potentially establish connections between one gun and multiple crimes.

Much like fingerprints in people, the microscopic ridges and patterns on bullets are often unique to the gun that fired them.

“No two firearms leave the exact same marks,” Laterza says.

After nearly 20 years on the job, working with shootings and death doesn’t bother him.

“There will always be firearms, and as long as there’s firearms there will always be a need for somebody like me.”

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