Using CCTV to identify people carrying guns

May 2008 CCTV, Surveillance & Remote Monitoring

The identification of people carrying illegal or even legal weapons, particularly firearms, is becoming an increasing concern for some CCTV surveillance operations.

Managers of such operations feel there is a need to pick up potential threats, whether in town centres, airports, banks or any other area where there could be a problem with armed robbery or gang related violence.

Gun crime is on the rise in places such as the UK, and campus shootings in the US highlight increasing trends of shooting in tertiary institutions. In many countries, the use of guns has become the weapon of choice in stealing anything from cellphones to carjacking. Terrorism increases this ongoing threat even more. Detection of people who are carrying firearms is becoming more important, but just how valid is the expectation that people carrying guns can be identified with CCTV.

The expectation that people carrying firearms can be detected needs to be discussed before looking at methods of doing this. I am going to focus on the aspect of weapons that are concealed in some way rather than obviously carried on the person's waist in some kind of holster. In the case of concealed guns, detection of a person carrying the firearm implies that something different from the normal situation is occurring. However, in a number of countries, or even in certain jobs, the carrying of firearms is quite acceptable and people behave perfectly normally while doing so.

I have looked intensively at people who I know are legally carrying weapons and it is very difficult to spot anything different about them. Ironically, it may be easier to spot somebody who usually carries a gun who does not have it with them, as they feel from time to time the area where they feel something is missing.

A number of factors will influence how the firearm is carried, and consequently how easy it is to see. These can include the following:

* The more normal it is for people to carry a gun, the more difficult it will be to detect.

* The bigger the firearm, the easier it is to detect.

* The placement of the firearm on the body will change the detection success. Some locations are likely to lead to more obvious behaviour of possession being shown. Typical locations are around the waist, on the leg, under the shoulder and, in some cases, tucked into the front of the pants.

The possible areas to look for in order to detect if somebody is carrying a gun are briefly discussed below. While useful they also occur as a result of other situations and they do not necessarily mean the person is carrying a weapon. This potential for false alarms makes the job of detecting somebody carrying a gun a fairly difficult exercise.

Physical signs of appearance in clothing

Firearms are relatively heavy and take up space. To conceal a firearm, it has to be supported on the body and clothes have to take shape around it. One may therefore look at how the clothing hangs on the body, whether lines in the clothing take their normal path, check for bulges and inconsistent movement of material around sections of the body or tightening and creasing as the material gets caught or hitched on the weapon or holster.

However, despite the fact that firearms do influence clothing, this effect can be minimal and relatively difficult to detect. To detect someone with an ankle holster, for example, takes a careful examination and even with dedicated watching, successful detection cannot always be concluded.

Use of masking clothing

People who carry concealed firearms are well aware that others will notice what they are carrying. To avoid being found out, they will often wear clothing that is typically loose and will not be constricted or be affected by objects under them. Jackets are a preferred type of clothing in this respect, and where we find automatic weapons being used, we also find longer jackets or coats.

So, how do we know whether the clothing is used for masking purposes or is just what the person likes to wear? Functionality for the environment is one way it can be picked up.

Suspects involved in a robbery at an entertainment complex some time ago were all waiting outside initially, wearing long coats. As it was about 30° in mid-summer, it should have been immediately obvious to the CCTV operators that something was amiss. However it was only when several took out AK47s and robbed the complex that it was noticed. If the clothing does not suit the conditions in other situations, it may be used for masking purposes.

Further, clothing is a fashion statement, from the most élite dresser to the improvised gang member. If a person is wearing something that is significantly different from expected fashion and has good masking characteristics, it could be an indicator of a firearm being carried. Of course, there is good reason that the type of clothing typically worn by gang members facilitates the carrying of weapons.

Physical reactions

Carrying a gun involves a hard stiff object sitting close to your skin. This does have some implications for flexibility and stance, although the key locations where guns are normally carried are aligned with body parts that are fairly rigid themselves.

However, a gun can restrict the extent of movement. For example, when bending down if the weapon is in front of one's waist, the person will tend to twist their body to avoid having a barrel sticking into their leg or thigh. Unfortunately this restriction of movement does not occur commonly during the normal range of movement making it difficult to spot with a camera.

Disruptions to normal movement

The storing of a concealed firearm will tend to be done so it is fairly secure. This should allow normal movement in most cases, including walking. When running or moving quickly, the person's hand may touch and steady the weapon to avoid the weight causing it to shift too much or fall out of place.

Although there may be slight posture changes to accommodate the weapon in place, these are unlikely to be significant - possibly favouring one leg, or standing slightly more stiffly. When confronted in something like a street fight, however, somebody with such a weapon is unlikely to move or engage in the same manner as unarmed people, rather shielding and protecting the weapon and ensuring that it is not found on him.

Use of a gun requires space and the suspect will ensure that he or she can maintain such space. Other people who know he has a gun may tend to group behind him as he has a stronger defence capacity.

Reassurance and confidence behavior

Firearms are carried for psychological reasons and it is possibly this area that has the most potential to aid in detection. A gun gives power and confidence and can make a person feel more than they really are. This can reflect itself in the way somebody walks, a more aggressive stance and other behaviours showing a sense of importance.

These indicators are more likely to be reflected in people with low self-esteem and self-discipline, or aggressively trying to project an image. Those who tend to be more adjusted and for whom the gun is part of the standard dress requirements would tend to show far less of these behaviours. In this sense, knowing the typical behaviour of a person would show up the contrast in his behaviour.

Unfortunately, operators in public areas seldom know much about the history of people they are looking at. However, behaviour also is relatively consistent in places and in groups. By looking at strong variances in the behaviour of a person relative to the typical behaviours in the area, one can pick up indications of concealed weapons. Similarly, operators tend to get a feel for which people are likely to be carrying weapons in an area because of a familiarly with the types of behaviours, clothing, and stances which can be exhibited.

As guns give certain people greater confidence, they tend to touch the area where they are keeping the weapon more to reassure themselves they are in possession and in control. By observing the part of the body where such touching behaviour occurs, particularly when the person may be under pressure or possible threat, one can start identifying whether an object is involved and is it in a likely place where a gun could be concealed.

Precursor behaviour to accessing the weapon

Conditions that will initiate the person pulling out a concealed weapon will typically build up in nature. This build up may be slow or very rapid, but creates precursor behaviours where the holder of the gun prepares him or herself to get access to it. This could include a loosening of the clothing that covers the weapon to facilitate getting hold of it quickly, maintaining a hand close to the weapon to increase access speed, and a stiffening body posture as part of a general threat response.

Together with these behaviours would be those typically found at the start of an incident - searching the area for threats and escape routes, nervousness and anxiety behaviour, rapid eye movements, positioning for a clear line of fire, and then an increased focus on the target. When this kind of behaviour is seen, there are probably only seconds to the incident occurring.

As discussed earlier in this article, the more normal it is for a person to carry a weapon, the less it is likely to be detected. It just becomes another part of clothing for many people. However, when the situation becomes one in which they may need to access the weapon, it is no longer normal and their behaviour will change, showing more obvious signals.

Detection is likely to be most effective where a person has little experience in carrying the weapon, is demonstrating a psychological state where the gun is being used as a basis for physical and psychological support, and the weapon is to be used for carrying out a specific short term purpose.

While CCTV operators exposed to people carrying guns may start developing an intuitive feel about people and who could be suspect, it remains a difficult task to accomplish.

Dr Craig Donald
Dr Craig Donald

Dr Craig Donald is a human factors specialist in security and CCTV. He is a director of Leaderware, which provides instruments for the selection of CCTV operators, X-ray screeners and other security personnel in major operations around the world. He also runs CCTV Surveillance Skills and Body Language, and Advanced Surveillance Body Language courses for CCTV operators, supervisors and managers internationally, and consults on CCTV management. He can be contacted on +27 (0)11 787 7811 or


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