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The Science Life

Sounds from gunshots may help solve crimes

By measuring sound waves of 20 gun types, researcher hopes to improve forensics

11:30am, June 29, 2016
Gun sounds

TAKING AIM  An aluminum arc holds 12 microphones for recording gunshot sounds. Robert Maher built the contraption to find out whether different kinds of guns make distinct sounds. Here, Maher’s colleague Steven Shaw prepares to shoot in a prairie in Bozeman. 

The surveillance video shows a peaceful city streetscape: People walking, cars driving, birds chirping.

“Then, abruptly, there’s the sound of gunfire,” said electrical engineer Robert Maher. “A big bang followed by another bang.”

Witnesses saw two shooters facing off, a few meters apart — one aiming north, the other south. But no one knew who shot first. That’s where Maher comes in. His specialty is gunshot acoustics, and he’s helping shore up the science behind a relatively new forensics field.

In the case of the two shooters, surveillance cameras missed the action, but the sounds told a story that was loud and clear.

A distinctive echo followed the first gunshot but not the second. The first gunshot’s sound probably bounced off a big building to the north, causing the echo, Maher concluded. So the first person to shoot was the person facing north, he reported May 24 in Salt Lake City at a

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