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What is a Smoking Gun?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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A smoking gun is a piece of incontrovertible evidence which conclusively proves that someone has committed a crime. Smoking gun evidence can be critical in a criminal trial, since it usually persuades the jury and judge, and such evidence often attracts attention from the general public, as well. Because this English slang term is so well-known, people also sometimes use the term to describe crucial evidence in another context, like a scientific inquiry into a natural phenomenon.

According to columnist William Safire, the phrase “the smoking gun” originated in 1893, when a smoking pistol was a key element in a Sherlock Holmes mystery. Before smokeless gunpowder was developed in the late 1800s, freshly fired guns did indeed smoke, and a plume of smoke rising from the barrel of a gun would have been a strong indicator that it had just been used for something. In the Sherlock Holmes story, someone is discovered standing over a dead body with a gun in hand, and this is taken to be compelling evidence that the person with the gun probably committed the murder.

Smoking gun evidence can take any number of forms. In a corruption inquiry, for example, the evidence might be a compromising memorandum, or a large transfer of funds from one place to another. In war crimes trials, mass graves and testimony from victims might be considered smoking gun evidence which points a clear finger at the accused.

While it is possible to argue against this type of evidence, it can be challenging. When such compelling evidence emerges, it is usually difficult to prove that there is a mundane explanation for the evidence, and that the accused simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. When multiple witnesses all agree on the same statements, for example, this is often enough to convince a jury that the accused is indeed the perpetrator of a crime.

Depending on the nature of a trial, some lawyers may try to keep smoking gun evidence concealed as long as possible, so that they can startle the other side. Most classically, a smoking gun is presented by the prosecution, but sometimes the defense uses such evidence to conclusively prove that the defendant is innocent. By keeping the evidence under wraps, lawyers give their opponents little opportunity to rebut it in court, and sometimes it is even possible to provide the other side with a red herring to follow so that they will be embarrassed when the smoking gun is presented.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By Charred — On Jan 18, 2012

@miriam98 - I sometimes visit the Smoking Gun website, as well as others like it. It posts pictures of people who have been booked on charges of one sort or another – usually famous people like celebrities.

It also posts documents that may be public and important in a jury proceeding, including of course “smoking gun” documents.

I also visit other websites that may have that information. Some courts have docket information online and you can find some basic facts about how the trial went and what the results were.

The strange thing about all this information going online is that it has created what people call a “court of public opinion” where uneducated folks like me essentially try people before they’ve had a chance to defend themselves.

I don’t think that’s a good thing, but that’s what has happened in this Internet driven, media world of ours.

By miriam98 — On Jan 17, 2012

@NathanG - Well, smoking gun evidence does exist, whether or not DNA is as foolproof as you would think. Sometimes suspects will destroy the evidence that might implicate them, like if they deleted a bunch of emails or something like that.

However, in that case, the judge might inform the jury that the suspect has destroyed the emails, whether or not it was intended to bury evidence. The jurors will have to make whatever inferences they can from those actions.

By NathanG — On Jan 16, 2012

I served on a jury for a criminal trial. It was a murder case and unfortunately there was no smoking gun as such. There was DNA evidence but the fingerprints were inconclusive.

The prosecution presented the DNA evidence even though it didn’t really help their case, but they pointed out that most DNA evidence doesn’t really provide the smoking gun people expect.

Prosecutors were trying to bring down our expectations. Jurors tend to suffer from the proverbial “CSI Effect” where they expect a smoking gun in the DNA evidence to nail the suspect. Alas, it rarely happens, and the prosecution had to build its case on circumstantial evidence alone. In the end they lost.

By Perdido — On Jan 16, 2012

Celebrities are often put to shame by smoking guns. The media finds embarrassing pictures and publishes them for the world to see.

This gives the celebrity little to no room to deny the facts presented. Often, pictures show them cheating on their spouses. The images are so graphic that there can be no other explanation for what they were doing.

Smoking guns have caused many celebrity marriages to end. Things like DNA results that have revealed that certain guys are the father of babies by someone other than their wives are enough for any woman to end a relationship.

By cloudel — On Jan 15, 2012

@Oceana – Yes, she definitely couldn't say she was framed or put in a difficult position. If the camera caught her kissing the kid, she must have went to prison.

I work at a convenience store, and we have a security camera that provides pretty clear video. The frames can be blown up easily to show detail about someone's face, and this helped us catch the guy who robbed us.

He was dumb enough to come in without a mask. The video showed him wielding a gun. You could clearly see his facial expressions and identifying scars.

He is now in jail, and hopefully, he will stay there for a long time. The smoking gun video was proof enough for the jury.

By Oceana — On Jan 15, 2012

Sometimes the best smoking gun is provided by a video camera. Every room in my school had one, and the teachers and principals used them a great deal for this.

Since all the teachers knew about them, they were careful to be on their best behavior. However, one teacher was having an affair with a student, and she decided to turn off the camera when she met with him in her classroom.

She thought she knew how to operate it, but she simply turned the audio off instead of the video. The camera caught her kissing the student, and she went to court, where they presented her with the smoking gun.

You just can't argue with evidence like this. It is there for everyone to see plainly.

By kylee07drg — On Jan 14, 2012

My parents liked to refer to irrefutable evidence they used to punish me and my siblings as “smoking guns.” So, I became familiar with this term at a young age.

They accused my brother of stealing their credit card and buying video games with it. He denied this, and then my mother pulled his wallet out of his back pocket abruptly and discovered the credit card inside of it. This was a definite smoking gun.

They caught my sister talking to an older man via email. They figured she would deny it, so they printed out copies of the emails between them, and she had to confess.

Smoking guns are great tools for parents. They help them teach their children about owning up to their crimes, and they justify the punishment they dole out.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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