Dangerous Lookalikes

Improper use of Airsoft, BB, and pellet guns on the street can cause deadly confusion for law enforcement.

Cops Shoot Teen Holding BB Gun, Chicago Tribune, August 8, 2006

Cabrini-Green Youth Take Their Message to City Hall: ‘Stop Shooting Our Children’, Chicago Defender, August 11, 2006

What’s going on in Chicago isn’t about real guns or fake guns, or young people or old people. Clearly, there is some angst between various communities and the police department. Such tinderboxes tend to flare up in the wake of incidents such as the shooting of Ellis Woodland. These flare-ups will continue to happen whenever those who feel disenfranchised take issue with some action taken by the police, especially if it results in the death or serious injury of someone who can be characterized as a “youth.” But let’s not lose sight of the facts of this particular case and those like them that grab national headlines.

According to police, Ellis Woodland, 14, attempted to rob another boy and used a Daisy BB gun that looked remarkably like a real gun to do it. Police speculate that he used this particular item for two reasons: One, he didn’t have a real gun and, two, the BB gun was sufficiently realistic to convince his victim it was real.

When the police showed up to respond to the report of an armed robbery they were, and should have been, blind to race, creed, religion, age, height, financial circumstance, etc. They found the person they believed committed the robbery and lawfully challenged him. They and other witnesses report that his response was to reach into his waistband, pull out a “gun,” and point it at them. The police shot him.

At presstime, Woodland was in critical condition; he was expected to survive his wounds. Neither he nor another teen whom police believe was an accomplice in the robbery had been charged, but the incident was under investigation.

Tragic? You betcha. But I believe it was a good shooting and a police investigation will prove it. Let’s take a big step back from the headlines that tug at the heartstrings for a second.

Last month I wrote an in-depth feature for Police about the benefits of training with Airsoft weapons. One of the things that makes Airsoft guns good training tools is the uncanny resemblance of these pellet-firing replica weapons to real firearms. They are so real looking that many have the same working safeties, mag release buttons, decockers, etc., as the firearms that they impersonate. Many are even licensed from the actual manufacturers of the real guns, so they bear the same name stamps and other details. Unfortunately, this attention to detail has led to tragedy not only in the training environment but also on the streets.

We discussed the potential for tragedy when training with Airsoft last month. (If you missed it, read Airsoft: Toy or Training Tool?, POLICE, August, 2006). So now let’s turn our attention to the danger of Airsoft guns on the street, in schools, and in offices.

The popularity of Airsoft means that you stand a good chance of running into them in the hands of a child, a teenager, or even an adult some time in your law enforcement career. There have been numerous cases of teachers, motorists, and business owners summoning police to check out a person with a gun in which the guns in question turned out to be Airsoft weapons.

Most of the time these incidents have concluded with the officer giving a stern warning to the gun’s owner, but some have been disastrous. As reported in the Ellis Woodland incident, people have been shot with real bullets because they pointed BB and Airsoft guns at police officers or at other people in the presence of police officers. Most Airsoft guns sold to the public are marked with blaze orange on their muzzles. But there are a lot of criminals or stupid people out there who want their Airsoft guns to look more real, so they remove the orange from their muzzles. Some gangbangers are already working off the officer guilt factor. In an attempt to slow down officer responses during lethal force encounters, they are painting the tips of their actual firearms orange.

Next time you’re in a store that sells Airsoft guns, take a close look at one. Now imagine someone pointing it at you on the street and ask yourself what you would do. And remember, you only have a fraction of a second to react. Hesitation during an emotionally charged event might make the difference between winning or losing, and all that losing implies.

Given the intense realism of these devices and the difficulty of distinguishing them from actual firearms even during non-stressful, close-up examination, it is impractical (if not impossible) for responding officers to attempt to ascertain by visual means whether or not what is being pointed at them (or others) is real. When someone points an object that looks exactly like a conventional firearm at you, you must always respond as if it is a conventional firearm. To attempt to second-guess yourself or the motives of a suspect could prove catastrophic.

Some are calling for the punishment of officers who have shot those who were “only carrying a BB gun.” Others are calling for stricter legislation on Airsoft guns. Why? Japan has some of the strictest gun laws on the planet, but you don’t see Japan regulating Airsoft guns because it would be unthinkable to point them at people in the street or use them to rob people. It would get you hard time in prison or shot, and it should!

The bottom line here is that if somebody is acting in a threatening manner with something resembling a firearm, it either is a firearm or the bad guy is an idiot. If you have the wherewithal to determine without a doubt that what the subject has does not pose a threat, then by all means act accordingly. If you shoot somebody and later discover that the subject pointed an Airsoft gun at you, that will be tragic. But the subject made a stupid and foolish move. And it would be even more tragic if you didn’t go home in one piece after your shift.

Kenneth R. Murray is the co-founder of Simunition and director of training for the Armiger Police Training Institute in Orlando, Fla. He is one of the leading proponents of reality-based training and the author of “Training at the Speed of Life.” He can be contacted at www.armiger.net.

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