Replica Weapons: How Many Kids Have to Die?
On October 22, 2013, deputies from the Santa Rosa Sheriff’s department challenged an armed man walking in what has been described as a high crime area within the county. The man reportedly turned towards the Deputies while raising the barrel of a rifle. One of the deputies fired 8 rounds striking and killing the man. Unfortunately, the “man” turned out to be a 13 year old boy, and the rifle was a replica AK-47 airsoft gun. Public outcry concerning this event reached a national level with gatherings and protests still occurring today. The shooting was ruled justified on both state and federal levels.
More recently, a Cleveland police officer responded to a 911 call reporting a man with a gun who was also pointing that gun at citizens. News reports state an officer later shot the man when the two encountered each other. The shooting was reportedly in response to the man reaching toward the gun. The man was later found to be a 12 year old boy and the handgun was a replica BB gun. This case also prompted national attention and a decision on whether or not to indict the officers involved is pending.
In addition to these two tragedies, 11 similar circumstance shootings involving children with toy (replica) guns were easily discovered via an internet search. The incidents are separate within each state, but provide a clear picture of what has occurred over the years: They include; two 12 year olds in Arkansas, a 13, 14, 17, and 18 year old in California, a 13 year old in Missouri, a 15 and 16 year old in Florida, a 16 and 17 year old in New York, and a 14 year old in Connecticut. These young men were all shot by police while “armed” with toy guns making this a national issue and not one relegated to any corner of society.
Is Law Enforcement to Blame?
The issue of when a law enforcement officer decides to act to save his life or the life of another is specific to that officer’s perspective, the contextual framework of the event, and the law. The confluence of these factors doesn’t provide credibility in a layman’s snap judgement or media sensationalism. The U.S. Supreme Court case law (Graham), which is a guiding light for law enforcement use of force, makes a point to state that an officer’s use of force is to be judged (in part) based upon the reasonable perspective of the officer at the scene and not with the obvious benefit of 20/20 hindsight. Society must remember they ask law enforcement to do tasks they themselves are not willing or capable of engaging in. Society places officers (by proxy) in circumstances where the officers may find themselves looking down the receiving end of a firearm under tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving circumstances. Society then expects officers to make 100 percent accurate analytical judgements under those same circumstances; A benchmark society itself does not achieve under much less stressful situations.
Identifying Causal Relationships.
Many believe law enforcement officers use deadly force unjustly or too quickly. While the discussion is necessary to ensure accountability, the context of children dying due to replica weapons should transcend much of the political and social rhetoric. This situation calls for swift action and not continued discussion. Action requires a true search and identification of cause. Why have 13 children been killed by law enforcement while “playing” with replica weapons?
Society must understand that cause does not simply circumscribe outcome. Cause can be tracked linearly through the series of events to a starting point or true causal factor. Intuitively speaking, eliminating the causal factor greatly diminishes the opportunity for a future event. Accepting this concept provides the background to trace the cause of these events well beyond the moment a law enforcement officer faced a replica weapon in the hands of a child.
The causal factor in these events is you and I, society as a whole. We and our governing bodies are responsible for the deaths of children armed with replica weapons due to a lack of action. Society and government know replica weapons are dangerous and can result in deaths due to a mistaken perception that the weapons are real. We know this from prior events, media sensationalizing, government study, and even the short sighted statutes created specifically to address replica firearms. Yet, we have not prevented the incidents from occurring because we haven’t dealt appropriately with the real causal factor – social acceptance of children with replica firearms playing in the streets of any town USA.
What did we know and when?
How long have we known that replica firearms are a problem in this country? My research on this subject shows the Department of Justice was aware of the already existent problem over 25 years ago. Here is what they knew then:
A 1990 DOJ study reported that between 1985 and 1989, 252 incidents occurred involving replica type guns in which a law enforcement officer used force; up to and including deadly force. Within the study, a discussion on the minimum markings on replica firearms was presented. The overwhelming response was the minimum marking standards currently in use (then) were not adequate to prevent the weapons being mistaken for real. Part of this opinion revolved around the ease of removing the brightly colored orange safety tips, and the similarities between some brightly colored sighting systems (real weapons) and the safety tips. Unfortunately, this particular study didn’t address the severity of the problem and only pointed toward education as a precautionary measure.
In 1990 it was known that police may become involved in a use of deadly force against children carrying replica weapons. Since 1990, research shows at least 13 additional incidents have occurred and this is assuredly well below the real numbers. Therefore, a child’s death at the hands of law enforcement under these circumstances cannot fall squarely on the shoulders of the patrol officer in the field. Rather, society is and was aware of the problem for 25 years but has not acted sufficiently to remove the danger to children. Not another child should be shot and killed due to a replica handgun. Not another law enforcement officer should be forced to react to that perceived threat of life and death only to find later that the threat never existed.
According to my research, several countries, to include Canada have taken the most stringent approach by forbidding ownership of replica firearms. The US; however, only requires a 6mm blaze orange tip be affixed to the barrel of a replica airsoft firearm, with purchasers having to be at least 18 years old to purchase one. Let’s not forget the same federal government stated 25 years ago that the orange tip was not a sufficient deterrent.
In addition to the orange tip requirement, many states and localities have variations upon laws allowing replica firearms displayed in public. California, in its infinite wisdom, recently decided that it is legal to brandish a replica weapon in public as long as the entire weapon is brightly colored. However, real weapons have been and are painted a myriad of colors and designs (see pictures). The question to be asked at this point is whether parents of children who have access to replica weapons are aware of the law in their jurisdiction.
The bottom line is a social question pertaining to whether replica gun laws are sufficient to ensure not one more child dies because of them. Another social question is whether or not parents can be properly educated on the dangers of these weapons in a manner to ensure strict control of their children’s access to replica firearms. If the answers to these questions are not a definitive “yes”, then how many more children need to die in order to neutralize the causal factor ?
No problem should be presented without a solution. Although the recommendations offered are not the guarantee available by simply not allowing replica weapons in any public setting, they certainly can prevent more deaths. An article on the Personal Defense Network covered many concerns and provided potential recommendations, which are provided below. (I highly recommend that parents read the PDN article (see references) in full; however, here is a summary of the author’s recommendations):
- Airsoft (any replica gun) should only be used in a private facility and not in public (the street, a yard, or a park).
- Parents need to educate themselves and their children on gun safety.
- Parents need to educate themselves and their children on applicable laws regarding replica firearms.
- Parents should have their child complete a firearms safety course before using replica firearms.
- Parents should teach their children appropriate response to a law enforcement encounter (IE: drop the weapon immediately, keep hands visible).
Authors Note: If I had the power of law in my hands, I would ban replica firearms from public areas and ban them from children’s hands without direct adult supervision. Parents whose child was found with a replica firearm would be fined and in the event of injury – charged criminally. There are laws already on the books that could conceivably be fitting – Child Endangerment perhaps? Replica firearms would only be used in closed facilities or private grounds with a required ratio of adult proctors to armed children. I feel relatively certain that by following these rules, not one more child would be engaged by law enforcement – The question is whether we care enough as a society to prevent another child’s senseless death.