CINCINNATI — Twice in less than four months, police in Ohio have opened fire with real bullets on young people carrying lookalike guns, raising anguished questions about what could have prevented the deadly encounters.
The questions have been raised before: after the death last year of a 13-year-old California boy carrying what a sheriff’s deputy thought was an AK-47 assault rifle, after the 2012 shooting in a Texas middle school hallway of a 15-year-old student holding an air gun that resembled a Glock, and after the 2006 shooting of a 15-year-old Florida student with a pellet gun that looked to police like a 9mm handgun.
Such deadly cases, while rare, have led to laws and legislation in states and cities across the country. But some gun and law enforcement experts are skeptical about how effective they are.
Criminals, they say, could disguise real guns. And realistic lookalikes remain widely popular among youths who use them for both play and competitions, they say. Pellet and air guns are also popular among people who use them for target practice or hunting small game.
“Anything we can do to make police and the public safer is positive, but let’s not pass laws that provide a false sense of security or are unenforceable,” said Sgt. Ed Buns, a veteran weapons trainer for the city of Hamilton’s police department near Cincinnati.
State Rep. Alicia Reece, D-Cincinnati, said the Aug. 5 police shooting of 22-year-old John Crawford III in a suburban Wal-Mart store and the Nov. 22 police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland make it clear that action is needed. Her bill would require lookalike guns to be brightly colored.
“This bill is but one small step in addressing this tragedy and helping to prevent future deadly confrontations with someone who clearly presents little to no immediate threat or danger,” said Reece, who leads the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus. Both Crawford and Rice were black.
Associated Press research found at least 20 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. The most comprehensive national study on the topic of their involvement in police encounters was a 1990 federal report that found more than 100 cases in the previous five years in which police responded with force.
National Conference of State Legislatures records show that at least 12 states, along with Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, have laws restricting sales or uses of imitation firearms. New York City and many other municipalities have their own ordinances on lookalike guns. Minnesota passed a state law in 1988 after a series of toy gun cases including a fatal police shooting, but an AP check with state court officials found no record of any prosecutions under the statute.
The laws’ approaches vary: some require the lookalikes to be brightly colored, others set up stiff penalties for those who use lookalikes in alarming or criminal behavior.
“The two recent tragedies in Ohio are unfortunate examples of a trend we will continue to see unless we change our laws to make imitation guns distinguishable from real firearms,” said California Sen. Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, who sponsored state law signed this year requiring bright colors and fluorescent strips for lookalikes. He first introduced legislation in 2011 after a 13-year-old boy playing with pellet guns with friends in Los Angeles was left paralyzed by police.
Veteran police such as Buns say criminals could paint over real weapons, causing officers to hesitate: “The next thing you know, my wife is getting an American flag and they’re saying I was a good police officer.”
And Cleveland’s police chief, Calvin Williams, pointed out recently that real, lethal handguns are made in bright colors such as pink.
Michigan State University criminal justice professor David Carter, a former Kansas City police officer, was a co-author of the 1990 federal study of toy gun involvement in crime and police encounters. He said legislative proposals face opposition from manufacturers and other groups so that banning all lookalike guns is unlikely, and he doesn’t think laws about marking or coloring the guns to distinguish them will end the tragic cases.
“I’ve interviewed officers who’ve been involved in these situations, and they all say the same thing: you’re not really looking at the gun, you’re really focused on the person’s behavior,” Carter said.
Carter said the most pragmatic solution lies in education — more training for police and raising awareness for parents, young people and the general public about the potential danger of lookalike guns.
In Cleveland, police said an officer shot Rice— who was carrying an air gun that shoots plastic pellets — in a public park after he didn’t put up his hands as told. In the Wal-Mart shooting, Beavercreek police said they believed Crawford had a “black assault rifle” in the crowded store and that he didn’t respond to commands to drop it.
Crawford turned out to be carrying an MK-177 BB/Pellet air rifle. The manufacturer’s instructions warn about brandishing it, because “police and others may think it is a firearm.”