Fatal Police Shootings Add Fuel To Proposed Fake Guns Ban

Feb 3, 2016

Two brands of handguns can look virtually identical side-by-side but there’s a big difference: one fires bullets and the other fires BB’s. Lawmakers say this can cause confusion and tragic results.

A man named Mike is holding what looks like a black, Glock 19 handgun and he’s reviewing its features on YouTube.

“Some of the things that I like about this gun are the facts that it has blow back, it has the ejection port that’s open…”

Mike is with ReplicaAirguns.com and the object he’s holding isn’t an actual weapon -- it’s a BB gun.

“So let’s go ahead and take some shots.”

These so-called imitation firearms have been the subject of controversy for a long time. Anti-gun advocates have said they look too much like the real thing and can cause confusion and panic.

Rep. Bill Patmon (D-Cleveland)
Credit Joshua Lim - Scripps Fellow

For years Democratic lawmakers have proposed banning these look-alikes. Representative Bill Patmon of Cleveland is just the latest legislator to do so.

“If it looks like a gun, then people react to it as though it was a gun whether it is or not,” said Patmon.

While that fear of misunderstanding has been around for a while, it became a tragic reality in 2014.

The cries of protestors have filled the streets of Cleveland many times since the death of Tamir Rice in November of 2014. The 12-year-old was gunned down by police while he was holding a fake gun in a park.

People gather to protest the death of Tamir Rice in Cleveland
Credit Brian Bull/ideastream

A few months earlier 22-year-old John Crawford was shot and killed by police after he picked up an air rifle at a Dayton-area Walmart. Both victims were black, and the killings stoked the fires of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Patmon’s bill would ban anyone from carrying imitation firearms, it also bans companies from selling and even making realistic looking guns like the ones Tamir Rice and John Crawford were holding when they were shot. But Ohio is an open carry state. So if the bill were to pass, Patmon says people could carry a loaded weapon onto unrestricted areas but not an air rifle.

“It’s purely simple. Whether it’s Walmart pulling a toy gun off of a shelf or an air pistol and getting shot down. If you’re going to get shot down then you should at least have a real gun,” Patmon explained.

But that makes no sense to gun rights advocates such as Joe Eaton with the Buckeye Firearms Association.

“Most of these bills are really looking to solve a problem that doesn’t exist,” said Eaton.

Instead Eaton says more people need to be educated on how to conduct themselves while holding a gun.

“Whether the firearms involved are real firearms, look-alike firearms or toys. It’s the person’s actions and the way that they’re using the objects which can cause problems.”

That’s why concealed carry is so important, according to Eaton.

“Firearms are carried concealed so that nobody other than the person carrying them realizes that they have the firearm for personal protection.”

Patmon’s bill also raises several questions. Would juveniles, such as Tamir Rice, be charged with a crime if caught carrying an imitation firearm? What’s the difference between a toy gun and an imitation firearm? Patmon admits, he’s not convinced the first draft of his bill answers every question.

“All of that will be -- a lot of that will be decided by committee as we move through. There may be amendments and adjustments. This is not cast in stone,” said Patmon.

But to Jennifer Thorne with Ohioans Against Gun Violence, the bill is a good start. She adds that it’s at least worth having a discussion about the issue.

There’s another bill in the House that bans the sale of imitation firearms but not the manufacturing of them. Democratic Representative Alicia Reece named her bill after John Crawford, the shooting victim in Dayton. Her bill goes into further detail defining what objects are considered imitation firearms and what are considered toys or items of recreational use.

So for example, air rifles with florescent trigger guards, an orange cap at the tip of the barrel or a clear chamber would be exempted from the ban. How does the gun in the YouTube video stack up to those specifications?

“It’s a pretty cool gun.”

The Glock handgun look-alike meets none of those standards and would most likely be banned.