Toy guns mis­taken for real across U.S.

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By John Sul­li­van, Jen­nifer Jenk­ins, Julie Tate, Shaun Court­ney and Jor­dan Hous­ton

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, 13year-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, 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 real-look­ing pel­let guns, toy weapons and non­func­tion­ing repli­cas.

Such en­coun­ters have led po­lice to shoot and kill at least 86 peo­ple dur­ing the past two years, ac­cord­ing to a Wash­ing­ton Post data­base of fa­tal po­lice shoot­ings na­tion­wide. So far this year, po­lice have shot and killed 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.”

The role of im­i­ta­tion firearms in fa­tal po­lice en­coun­ters re-emerged as a na­tional is­sue in 2014, when Cleve­land po­lice fa­tally shot 12year-old Tamir Rice, who was play­ing with a BB gun in a park. Po­lice were re­spond­ing to a call about a man with a gun out­side a lo­cal re­cre­ation cen­ter. The shoot­ing was among a spate of con­tro­ver­sial and deadly en­coun­ters with po­lice that helped gal­va­nize the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment.

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.

Among the dead are Ernesto Flores, a men­tally dis­traught 52-year-old man who, af­ter a stand­off with po­lice in April 2015, stepped out of a pink stucco home in Mont­clair, Calif., hold­ing a BB gun. Po­lice opened fire, killing Flores in front of his fam­ily.

One of only five women killed by po­lice was 17-yearold Shelly Haendi­ges, who was shot in Kokomo, Ind., af­ter po­lice re­sponded to a rob­bery call and found her point­ing a pel­let gun at a store clerk. Her fam­ily said she suf­fered from men­tal ill­ness.

Two of the most re­cent shoot­ings hap­pened in Oc­to­ber in Elk­ton, Md., where po­lice shot and killed Bran­don Jones and Chelsea Porter, both 25 and of Dover, Del., af­ter they pointed BB guns at po­lice who were try­ing to ar­rest them.

The BB gun re­cov­ered af­ter po­lice killed King, the Ohio teenager, 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.

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.

Michael Ham­mond, a le­gal ad­viser to the pro-gun group, said the al­ter­ations never seem to be enough for those who dis­like guns. “It all arises out of this gen­eral an­i­mus and me­dia-fed fear of any­thing that has to do with guns,” Ham­mond said.

The NRA de­clined to com­ment.

In Ohio, where King and Rice were killed, the state does not reg­u­late BB guns. Ohio does al­low firearms to be car­ried openly.

The day af­ter Rice’s death, black leg­is­la­tors in Ohio tried to reg­u­late the guns, in­tro­duc­ing a law re­quir­ing all BB and pel­let guns sold in the state to have spe­cial mark­ings or be brightly col­ored. The bill died in com­mit­tee.

Two years later, po­lice shot King. “Why is it that a 13-year-old would have nearly an ex­act replica of a po­lice firearm on him in our neigh­bor­hoods, an eighth­grader in­volved in very, very dan­ger­ous con­duct in one of our neigh­bor­hoods?” Colum­bus Mayor An­drew Ginther, a Demo­crat, said at a news con­fer­ence af­ter the shoot­ing.

In the 1980s, a string of po­lice shoot­ings of chil­dren prompted Congress to pass the first and only fed­eral reg­u­la­tions on toy guns.

In 1983, 5-year-old Pa­trick An­drew Ma­son was alone in his Stan­ton, Calif., home when an of­fi­cer who was called to the unit to do a wel­fare check mis­took the boy with his red toy gun for a bur­glar; the boy was fa­tally shot while his sin­gle mother was away at work, ac­cord­ing to news re­ports.

In 1988, of­fi­cers in San Fran­cisco re­spond­ing to a re­port of shots fired mis­took a plas­tic toy gun for a .22-cal­iber pis­tol and shot a 13-year-old men­tally dis­abled boy in the head, killing him.

Par­ents be­gan to push man­u­fac­tur­ers to make the guns ap­pear less re­al­is­tic. Re­tail­ers stopped car­ry­ing re­al­is­tic toy guns, and toy man­u­fac­tur­ers be­gan adding an or­ange plug to toy guns.

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