FAKE GUNS KILL TOO


FAKE GUNS KILL TOO

On a warm September evening in Columbus, Ohio, panicked witnesses called police to report that a group of boys had robbed a man at gunpoint and fled into a maze of alleys and fences on the city’s east side.   In the fading light, Officer Bryan Mason cornered two of the boys in an alley, where, according to police, 13-year-old Tyre King pulled a gun from his waistband. Mason fired three rounds, striking the teen in the head, chest and torso.

The black gun police recovered at the scene looked like their own department-issued, polymer-framed Smith & Wesson Military and Police semiautomatic pistol. It even had a laser sight. But police would soon learn that King’s weapon was a BB gun — a facsimile of the gun Mason used to shoot and kill the teen.

At a news conference the next day, Columbus Police Chief Kim Jacobs waved a stock photograph of the BB gun. “Our officers carry a gun that looks practically identical to this weapon,” she said. “. . . It looks like a firearm that could kill you.”

Police across the country say that they are increasingly facing off against people with ultra-real-looking pellet guns, toy weapons and non-functioning replicas.

Such encounters have led police to shoot and kill at least 86 people over the past two years, according to a Washington Post database of fatal police shootings nationwide. So far this year, police have fatally shot 43 people wielding the guns. In 2015, police also killed 43.

The Post analysis is the first accounting of fatal police shootings involving people armed with air guns, toys or replicas, a phenomenon last studied in depth more than 25 years ago, when Congress first sought to address the problem of police shootings involving toy guns. The 86 shooting deaths are among the nearly 2,000 people shot and killed by police since 2015, which The Post is tracking, something no government agency does.

Police recovered a wide variety of the weapons in the fatal shootings, but almost all had one thing in common: They were highly realistic copies of firearms. Of those, 53 were pneumatic BB or pellet guns that fire small-caliber metal balls or pellets.  An additional 16 were Airsoft guns, which use compressed air cartridges to fire plastic BBs. Thirteen were replicas, two were toys, one was a starter pistol and one was a lighter.

Experts who study the domestic market for pellet and Airsoft guns said consumer demand for replica firearms has grown.  “They are red hot,” said Tom Gaylord, an industry consultant who runs a popular blog for the Ohio-based Pyramyd Air, one of the largest air gun retailers in the country. Pyramyd Air declined to comment.

Police say it is virtually impossible to train officers to identify imitation firearms from any distance. Short of eliminating the guns, police have little choice but to assume the guns are lethal.

Efforts to stop production of the guns or radically alter their appearance have mostly failed because of resistance from gunmakers and gun rights groups, such as the National Rifle Association.

“We’re talking about this 26 years later, and I’m not sure anything has really changed except that tragic occurrences continue to happen,” said Chuck Wexler, who runs the Police Executive Research Forum, a policing policy think tank that studied the issue in 1990 for Congress. “A toy gun in a country with 300 million real guns is hard to distinguish.”

 Of the 86 fatal shootings involving imitation firearms since 2015, the most common theme was mental illness: 38 of those killed had a history of it, according to their families and police reports. Fourteen of the calls were domestic disturbances. Ten others began as robberies. The remaining circumstances range from patrolling neighborhoods to serving arrest warrants to making traffic stops.

Of the people killed, 50 were white men. The oldest person killed was Robert Patrick Quinn, 77, who was fatally shot in Pittston, Pa., as he rode his motorized scooter outside an apartment complex while waving a realistic-looking pellet gun.

Half of the shootings happened at night. In almost every case, police said the victims failed to comply with an officer’s orders. In 60 cases, police said they pointed guns at officers.

The BB gun recovered was made by Umarex USA, one of the largest air gun and firearm manufacturers in the world and the self-proclaimed “king of replicas.” Umarex makes air guns under the Beretta, Colt, Smith & Wesson, HK, Ruger and Browning brands.  It sells BB guns that are copies of such firearms as the iconic Colt Peacemaker, which was first produced in the 1870s, and the Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine, a mainstay of specialized military and police units. The Umarex 40XP BB gun that King allegedly brandished sells for about $50 in stores, including Walmart.

Gunmaker Sig Sauer makes air guns that are advertised as “carbon copies” of their most popular lethal firearms, including the P226 semiautomatic handgun. A commercial on the Sig Sauer website displayed the BB gun and the lethal P226 as reflections of each other in a mirror.   The claim was they are used for training.

Umarex USA and Sig Sauer did not return repeated calls seeking comment.

Gun rights groups, including Gun Owners of America, based in Virginia, have lobbied against laws that seek to alter air guns to make them distinguishable from firearms.  The NRA declined to comment.

In the 1980s, a string of police shootings of children prompted Congress to pass the first and only federal regulations on toy guns.  Parents began to push manufacturers to make the guns appear less realistic. Retailers such as Toys ‘R’ Us stopped carrying realistic toy guns, and toy manufacturers began adding an orange plug to toy guns. After several states restricted the use of imitation firearms, Congress in 1988 passed a law requiring the bright orange barrel plug on all toy guns. The law applied to water guns, many replicas and Airsoft guns that fire nonmetallic projectiles, but it exempted BB, pellet guns and replicas of antique firearms.  The law also mandated two studies on whether the new orange tips would prevent shootings.

In one study, FBI recruits were confronted by assailants carrying firearms or guns with orange tips. The recruits had two seconds to decide whether to shoot. When faced with unmarked replica pistols or guns with orange tips, officers shot 95 percent of the time.

CURRENTLY ON SALE AT WAL-MART IN THE TOY DEPARTMENT

“It is clear from this study that the orange plug marking system does not help police officers distinguish between toy guns and real guns,” concluded the 1989 report, which was managed by the National Institute of Justice.

The second study a year later reached the same conclusion, saying that police response when confronted with the guns was linked to environmental factors — such as what a police dispatcher tells an officer. Calls for service in a high-crime area, for example, might lead officers to consider “a worst case scenario,” said the report, overseen by the Police Executive Research Forum.

But it was the behavior of the person holding the toy gun that mattered most.

“If they are told there’s a person with a gun acting in a threatening manner, that’s what they respond to,” said David L. Carter, a professor at Michigan State University who spoke to officers in 27 law enforcement agencies for the 1990 study.

Last year, Congress revisited the issue when Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) introduced a bill that would force the country to enact a law similar to California’s, which requires the entire surface of all toy and BB guns be painted a bright color.

“No child should ever die because a police officer or anyone else mistakes a toy gun for a real weapon,” Boxer said in a news release at the time.  The bill stalled in committee.

Twelve states and the District and Puerto Rico have banned the guns or imposed restrictions on their use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In the District, realistic-looking toy or air-powered guns cannot be possessed in public. In 2012, D.C. police seized about 450 imitation guns, according to the most recent data available.

In 2015, Boston outlawed imitation firearms in public. The law allows police to confiscate those guns, and they have seized 139 this year. Boston Police Commissioner William B. Evans said if a facsimile gun has been used in a crime, police will charge a suspect with possession of a real gun.

“They are the exact same unless you have it in your hand and take it apart,” Evans said.

The department sent every available unit, and they quickly came upon a black Honda Civic and a black Toyota Camry. Men wearing werewolf masks were hanging out of the cars’ sunroofs waving what appeared to be Heckler & Koch MP5 machine guns, according to Darnell and records.

Police disarmed the men. The guns were plastic toys, and the gunmen, university students were making a movie for a film contest.

“This is what those of us in law enforcement are so concerned about,” Darnell said. “You never know what’s real or what’s not, so part of the solution is to ban the sale of toy or replica guns.”

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