Fake gun, real crime

Po­lice no­tice uptick in replica weapons

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - NEWS - By Michael Rubinkam

Whether they shoot BBs, pel­lets, paint­balls or noth­ing at all, im­i­ta­tion guns can be in­dis­tin­guish­able from the real thing — it’s one rea­son why some crim­i­nals grav­i­tate to­ward them. Plus they’re cheap and easy to get.

As Ohio author­i­ties in­ves­ti­gate the fa­tal po­lice shoot­ing of a 13-year-old boy who of­fi­cers said pulled a re­al­is­tic-look­ing BB gun from his waist­band, law en­force­ment agen­cies are grap­pling with the use of fake guns to com­mit very real crimes.

“If I can’t go get a real gun, it’s eas­ier for me to waltz into Wal-Mart or what­ever store sells these things and go get a replica. Be­cause if I go to a store to hold it up, the guy be­hind the counter isn’t go­ing to know it’s not real,” said Ge­of­frey Alpert, a crim­i­nal jus­tice pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of South Carolina.

While the fed­eral govern­ment does not track crim­i­nals’ use of toy or replica guns, some in­di­vid­ual po­lice de­part­ments say they’ve no­ticed an uptick.

In Edmonton, Canada, po­lice said im­i­ta­tion guns were in­volved in 1,598 in­ci­dents in 2015 — up 38 per­cent from a year ear­lier.

In Ar­ling­ton, Texas, sus­pects are in­creas­ingly us­ing looka­like guns, in­clud­ing an in­ci­dent ear­lier this year in which a man car­jacked a woman us­ing an air gun that re­sem­bled a real pis­tol, and an­other case in­volv­ing a teen who threat­ened an of­fi­cer with a replica gun. The of­fi­cer man­aged to knock it out of the teen’s hand and tackle him.

Ar­ling­ton po­lice Lt. Christo­pher Cook said that be­tween March and Au­gust, nearly 20 per­cent of the weapons seized by po­lice after they were used in crimes turned out to be looka­likes.

So far, po­lice haven’t had to use deadly force. But Cook said that could change in an in­stant.

“There’s no train­ing in the world that we know of where an of­fi­cer can read­ily dis­tin­guish a real gun from a fake gun,” he said. “That’s not re­al­is­tic, be­cause of­fi­cers have to make split-sec­ond de­ci­sions to as­cer­tain whether it’s a firearm or not.”

A looka­like weapon is at the cen­ter of last week’s fa­tal po­lice shoot­ing of Tyre King in Colum­bus, Ohio.

An of­fi­cer re­spond­ing to a re­port of a $10 armed rob­bery shot the teen after he pulled out a BB gun that looked “prac­ti­cally iden­ti­cal” to the weapon that po­lice of­fi­cers use, Colum­bus po­lice said.

A 19-year-old who said he was the boy’s friend told a news­pa­per that Tyre had a real-look­ing BB gun, was out to rob some­one and ran from po­lice. But an at­tor­ney for Tyre’s fam­ily has called for an in­de­pen­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion, say­ing the fam­ily be­lieves the boy’s in­volve­ment in an armed rob­bery would be “out of char­ac­ter” and the po­lice ver­sion of events “might not be true.”

How­ever the facts shake loose in Colum­bus, the use of replica guns in crime has long vexed law en­force­ment.

In the late 1980s, after a rash of high-pro­file po­lice shoot­ings of sus­pects car­ry­ing toy or looka­like guns, Congress autho­rized a study that found thou­sands of rob­beries and as­saults to have been com­mit­ted with im­i­ta­tion weapons be­tween 1985 and 1989. The study also iden­ti­fied more than 250 cases in which an of­fi­cer used force — deadly or other­wise — on a sus­pect bran­dish­ing an im­i­ta­tion gun.

More re­cently, As­so­ci­ated Press re­search found at least 25 deaths in­volv­ing looka­like guns mis­taken by po­lice for ac­tual firearms across the coun­try in the last two decades, dat­ing to the 1994 slay­ing by a hous­ing po­lice of­fi­cer of a 13-year-old New York City boy.

“It’s hor­ri­ble, it’s hor­ri­ble, when these kids are dis­play­ing these firearms and a life is lost, and after the fact it turns out it’s not real,” said Al­len­town, Penn­syl­va­nia, po­lice Capt. Richard Lon­don.

But he added it can be nearly im­pos­si­ble to tell an im­i­ta­tion gun from a firearm that shoots real bul­lets.

“It’s hu­man na­ture to de­fend your­self in the face of that,” he said.

At least 12 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico have laws re­strict­ing the sale or use of im­i­ta­tion firearms, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Con­fer­ence of State Leg­is­la­tures, while many cities and towns have their own or­di­nances on looka­like guns.

Fed­eral law re­quires im­i­ta­tion guns to have or­ange plugs in the bar­rel to dis­tin­guish them from real firearms, but the tips are eas­ily re­moved and ex­perts ques­tion their ef­fec­tive­ness.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Colum­bus, Ohio, Po­lice Chief Kim Ja­cobs dis­plays a photo of the type of BB gun po­lice say Tyre King pulled from his waist­band Wed­nes­day be­fore he was shot and killed by a po­lice of­fi­cer in­ves­ti­gat­ing an armed rob­bery re­port, dur­ing a news con­fer­ence in Colum­bus, Ohio.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A semi-au­to­matic hand­gun, left, is dis­played next to a Pow­er­line 340 BB gun, right, sim­i­lar to a BB gun author­i­ties say a teenager car­ried when he was shot and wounded by a Bal­ti­more po­lice of­fi­cer, dis­played dur­ing a news con­fer­ence in Bal­ti­more.

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