Replica Weapons: A Collective Effort to Stop Mistake of Fact Shootings
By Dave Blake, Force Certified Analyst, Certified Criminal Investigator
In September, police officers in Columbus, Ohio, were called to an armed robbery. They spotted people who fit the description of the robbers and pursued them on foot. When one suspect pulled a handgun from his waistband, he was immediately shot and killed by police. The handgun was discovered to be a replica BB gun with a laser sight and the suspect a 13-year-old boy.
There have been several cases around the country where children have been mistaken for armed suspects and lost their lives. In two similar incidents, one in October 2013 and another in November 2014, a 13- and a 12-year-old boy were also killed by police. Both boys were handling replica guns with the orange safety tips removed. These tragedies have devastated families and communities, as well as the officers who pulled the triggers.
The public is understandably quick to blame law enforcement for these “mistake of fact” shootings, incidents where an officer reasonably – but inaccurately – believed the suspect was armed and posed an imminent threat. In order to stop such incidents that involve replica weapons, we should consider if there is also a larger social problem at play.
Culpability: Just Law Enforcement?
Society’s emotional response to these shootings and the subsequent backlash towards law enforcement is expected. However, people rarely look critically at these situations to determine responsibility beyond the people involved. It can be easy to forget that the officer was looking down the barrel of what they perceived to be a real firearm during a tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving situation. Officers perceiving a life-threatening situation must respond under incredible time constraints making it difficult for any human to make perfect assessments.
The United States Supreme Court understands the nature of these situations and provides clear use of deadly force guidelines based upon a “reasonable officer standard.” However, standards determining reasonable force do not bring children back to life. Therefore, it’s important to look at broader underlying social issues and to identify common causes. True concern requires a look beyond singular events and towards methods to eradicate a child’s replica-gun-involved death.
What We’ve Known about Replica Weapons
A 1990 Department of Justice study reported that between 1985 and 1989, 8,128 assaults were committed using replica weapons. During the same time period, there were 1,128 incidents involving replica weapons where officers threatened to use force because they believed a weapon was real. It’s also important to note that a small sample of 489 agencies in the U.S. submitted data, meaning these numbers are likely low.
The critical aspect of this study is its conclusion that the replica firearms were inadequately marked and made it difficult to tell the difference between a replica gun and a real one. The safety markings (orange tips) discussed in 1990 are the very same inadequate markings used today. Even more alarming is that many of the national incidents involving police, children, and replica weapons report the orange safety tip had been removed.
Society has been slow to respond, but New York City, Washington D.C., Chicago, and San Francisco have taken the most stringent and likely most effective approach by forbidding replica gun ownership by outlawing airsoft guns entirely. Some states, like California, have taken less restrictive, and plausibly ineffective, steps in making it illegal to brandish a replica weapon in public unless it is brightly colored.
Other social questions of reasonable importance are whether parents know about the dangers of replica weapons and whether they teach their children about these issues. Parents need to realize there is a risk that unsupervised children with replica guns can be misperceived as threats in specific contexts. The laws controlling replica firearms were based solely on known dangers and historical tragedies. Parents can’t overlook this fundamental fact if they hope to prevent future disastrous outcomes.
A concerned society, inclusive of parents, law enforcement, and lawmakers, are all responsible for ensuring the safety of our children. Both law enforcement and society must do their part to ensure that situations involving a child with a replica weapon don’t result in heartbreaking outcomes. Regardless of legality, is it reasonable or conducive to a safer society to place total responsibility on an officer?
Ultimately, law enforcement must lead the way. Officers must undergo continuous use of force training and invest efforts in educating the public on current laws regarding replica handguns. Parents should also ensure their children are using replica weapons in accordance with the law and good common sense. This includes making sure their children do not remove orange safety tips, understand the potential misperception of their “toy,” and are supervised when using their replica weapons in public.
Author: Dave Blake is a retired law enforcement officer, current use-of-force trainer and expert witness. He is a Force Certified Analyst, Certified Criminal Investigator, and CA-POST Certified Instructor in firearms, defensive tactics, and the force options simulator. He currently facilitates the CA-POST Force Encounters Analysis 24-hour course for the California Training Institute He holds a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice Management and a master’s in Psychology. Dave owns Blake Consulting & Training Group.