By LUCAS L. JOHNSON II • Tennessean.com
May 4, 2008

Concerns that realistic-looking toy weapons are confusing police and threatening safety have led 15 states to take a crack at going beyond gun control to implement fake-gun control.

Officer Micheal Hoover knows a fair amount about guns as a sniper instructor for a Tennessee SWAT team. He recalls the night two years ago when a car pulled up beside him on a highway and the passenger waved what looked like an Uzi.

“It scared me,” he said. “If anyone is in their right mind, I don’t see how it wouldn’t.”

Hoover was off duty and called for police help. A 20-year-old University of Tennessee football player was charged with aggravated assault after police found a black plastic toy Uzi submachine gun under the car’s passenger seat. But he was acquitted because jurors felt the officer should have been able to tell it was only a toy gun.

Lawmakers across the country are coming to a different conclusion, deciding that it is so hard to differentiate the toys from the fakes that public safety demands they crack down.

Seven bills limiting fake guns are pending this year and 21 have been enacted since 1990, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some states have enacted or are considering multiple measures. They range from prohibiting imitation firearms in vehicles to banning such guns from convenience stores.

Tennessee law proposed

In Tennessee, lawmakers are considering a proposal from Rep. John DeBerry to make it a misdemeanor to intentionally display or expose “an imitation firearm in a public place in a threatening manner.” Exceptions include justifiable self-defense, lawful hunting and displays, such as a museum collection.

DeBerry, D-Memphis, said he wants to prevent incidents like one last year that killed a 12-year-old boy in West Memphis, Ark.

DeAunta Farrow was fatally shot by a police officer who said that he thought the boy was carrying a gun and that the youngster refused to obey orders to halt. Investigators later said Farrow had a toy gun.

“It’s important that a child cannot walk into one of these little convenience stores, plop down a dollar and walk out with something that can get him shot on the spot without question,” DeBerry said.

A spokeswoman for the Toy Industry Association couldn’t immediately reach someone to comment on the trend toward fake-gun legislation but referred a reporter to its Web site, which states that it “emphatically rejects the scenario that casts toys as villains.”

Toys can confuse officers

Federal law requires toy guns or imitations to bear an orange tip, indicating that they’re not real. However, lawmakers say those tips are often disguised or removed.

“It only takes 30 seconds for a kid to either take a marker or some paint, or shoe polish, and that orange tip is gone,” DeBerry said, adding that the imitation guns are nearly identical in size, design and color to real ones.

“One of the imitation weapons I got at a convenience store looked very much like the assault weapons that the Secret Service and other FBI agents carry under their suits,” he said. “Another one was a handgun that had a silencer on it.”

New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Smith has proposed legislation that would make it a crime to remove the tips or “obscure” a firearm by adding a tip to it. He said he has received phone calls from concerned police officers who say they don’t want to shoot someone because they can’t tell whether a gun is fake.

“They are covering the tip to be macho or whatever,” said Smith, who represents New Jersey’s 17th District. “If police are called to the scene and don’t see those tips, then they open fire because it appears the person has a deadly weapon. The officer doesn’t have too many choices.”

NRA dismisses laws

Hoover said it’s even harder to determine if a gun is real or not after dark, as happened in his incident.

“It was nine o’clock at night,” he said. “I don’t care who you are, you’re not going to be able to tell the difference in that setting.”

Tennessee Republican Sen. Mark Norris, another sponsor of the bill being considered in Tennessee, said lawmakers are “worried for the safety of kids and cops,” which is why such legislation is important.

Florida Sen. Gary Siplin offered a bill to prohibit the carrying of a paintball gun in a vehicle, after he received a call from one of his mayors about youngsters brandishing such guns while driving.

If they’re that bold, Siplin said, they may use the fake weapon to commit a crime.

“Sometimes these people try to go into a store and try to rob it with a toy gun, and if the police come they may shoot, thinking it’s a real gun,” said the Orlando Democrat.

Last year, two teenage boys in Leavenworth, Kan., were arrested after they used a squirt gun wrapped in black electrical tape to rob a downtown discount store.

The leading U.S. opponent of gun control doesn’t think much of legislation that seeks to control fake guns.

National Rifle Association spokesman Ashley Varner said anti-toy-gun legislation is “silly” because “it doesn’t deal with issues of crime.”

“It won’t eradicate the human element of the crime,” she said. “It doesn’t target getting criminals off the street.”

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