Toy Guns and Cops: A Toxic Mix

As for those who have tried to damn those officers, I wonder what they would hope they might do if they'd seen 12-year-old Nevada teenager Jose Reyes whip out a firearm on teacher Michael Lansberry.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

Around 1971, a fake blood product came out called Vampire Blood. White letters against a crimson splash promised that the contents of its plastic tubing would be easily confused with oxygenated hemoglobin. I suppose it was hypoallergenic and non-toxic, too, because my 10-year-old friends and I chugged as much of the blood-red liquid as not and seemingly to no ill-effect. What was left was put to more creative use.

Dousing my friend Ronnie’s face and bare chest with the red stuff, I’d have him take off running down the side of our residential street with his back to oncoming traffic. Then, as some unsuspecting motorist would draw near, I’d start firing from a realistic cap gun at Ronnie who'd perform a melodramatic death-spiral before collapsing next to the roadway. 

The sound of the "gunfire," the smoke of spent cap gunpowder, and the spectacle of Ronnie’s blood-splattered torso would find the startled motorist slowing to do a double-take at our street side mayhem. Usually, the sight of Ronnie's round face giggling was enough for this traveler to make some comment about "little bastards" and press on, any initial relief he’d possibly experienced quickly replaced by a desire to see the job done right. And then Ronnie and I would be right back at it.

Our experiment in performance art lasted until an elderly black couple—their hour and attire suggesting a return trip from church—happened upon our roadside dramatics. 

At the sound of my gunshots, the gentleman slammed on his brakes so that his wife nearly hit the dashboard and the driver directly behind them was forced to steer into the oncoming lane so as to avoid a collision with their vehicle. Fortunately, there was no oncoming traffic.

That we'd been damn lucky that nobody had been hurt became belatedly apparent to Ronnie and I and we canceled our matinee performances. 

While Vampire Blood had kept its promise to confuse onlookers, the toy gun had certainly played its part, too. And this was long before the advent of kids intent on playing “The Most Dangerous Game” with their peers began roaming school hallways with real guns. 

I can't help but wonder what might happen if we'd tried that crap today and some cop happened upon the scene. Certainly, my stupidity transcended that of the 13-year-old boy (Alex Lopez) recently shot and killed by Sonoma County, Calif., Dep. Erick Gelhaus. Lopez’s death was hardly an isolated incident. Tragic encounters between officers and people carrying airsoft, toys, and other firearm replicas are unfortunately common.

While I cannot categorically assert such tragedies did not occur in decades past, I feel comfortable asserting that they did not occur with such frequency. Ironically, today's threats come at a time when kids would seemingly be less apt to find themselves staring down the wrong end of the real thing. Actively discouraged from simulating gunplay to the point of ridiculous school suspensions, relegated to either finger-pointing and yelling "bang, bang" or wielding toy guns modified with green-and-orange tipped barrels, one would reasonably think that confusing these distant cousins with the for the real thing would require the kind of credulity normally associated with Obama supporters.

And yet we still have instances of kids getting killed over inconvenient props.

To be sure, some of these toys and replicas may be much more easily mistaken for the real thing than others, and having seen the image of the airsoft gun wielded by Lopez, my heart goes out to the officers involved in his shooting. As for those who have tried to damn those officers, I wonder what they would hope they might do if they'd seen 12-year-old Nevada teenager Jose Reyes whip out a firearm on teacher Michael Lansberry. Would they have damned them for failing to drop the hammer then, particularly at the expense of the Marine's life?

What we are seeing is a tragic nexus between an age-old entitlement of male youth—playing with toy guns—and a new-age reality of the world (i.e., kids with real guns). And for all the unnecessary suspending and expelling of those who would play cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, or Jason meets the “Hunger Games,” boys will be boys. But when the discriminating barometer between men and boys is the price of their toys, then along that gradient scale lies a netherworld occupied by those high-end replica guns that can be confused with the real thing.

I stand by my advocacy for quick and decisive action in matters wherein there is the perception of imminent harm to an officer or others, including those posed by youths. And yet when I think of my teenage son asleep in the other room, I can't help but wonder if there isn't something more to be done to prevent such tragedies. Something that can avoid another Rodrigo Lopez from having to grieve, "It's not right what they did to my son?" Or are we just resigned to the occasional perfect storm of unfortunate events that coalesce into oxymoronic headlines such as "Cops Release Name of 12-Year-Old Gunman?"

I don't know that there is a practical answer, one that wouldn't step on someone's toes. But I believe the question should be asked by ourselves. And by parents. But it seems like most of the questions are being posed on the sidelines by a news media that is making much of the fact that one officer fired before his partner was even out of the car.

It's heady stuff, this profession that finds cops performing a kind of tightrope walk that would scare the hell out of the Wallendas. In recent days it has been revealed that a motorist who'd been detained by Gelhaus had expressed concerns about the 24-year law enforcement veteran's emotional heath two months prior to the incident.

Was Gelhaus a trigger-happy shooter (despite not having previously fired his weapon in over two decades of working law enforcement)? Might he have been a ticking time bomb? Or was he just a well-trained officer who responded reasonably and decisively to a very realistic threat?

Don't ask me—I'm still trying to figure out why a profession gives psych exams to a candidacy pool that would have to be crazy to seek the job in the first place.

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