If you are the kind of reader who looks for the catchphrase and moves on, here are the rules up front:
1. An officer’s response should be the same for a replica firearm as a real firearm.
2. Administrators need to recognize their response to this type of incident.
3. Use common sense.
4. Do not be politically correct.
A replica gun is a real gun until overwhelming evidence confirms it is not. What I am saying here needs to preclude any other response to a replica firearm that isn’t a firearm. For example, there have been incidents where officers have presented an electronic controlled device during a “suspected replica firearm” incident. Don’t do it. It’s a firearm until empirical evidence disproves this assumption.
Replica firearms, Airsoft guns and pellet guns have a particular training value, not only for law enforcement, but for hunter safety education, scouting and general character building. These days, there is a stigma attached to firearms use in general, based on the logic that kids shouldn’t have access to guns, large quantities of soda or french fries, even though a simple trip to the school nurse may provide him or her with the “morning after” pill. This type of stigma has severely limited the exposure of kids to solid safety training. Some evidence suggests replica and toy firearms can lend a hand in early firearms instruction by enhancing communication and decision making in kids. The approach of making them illegal or adding another piece of legislation is likely not a viable solution.
Another consideration: just because it is a replica firearm does not mean it lacks lethality. I own several pellet guns that can propel a pellet at a speed that could be fatal in certain soft tissues. If you don’t believe this, there have been many recorded incidents where this has been proven. For example, an 11-year-old was fatally shot in the chest by a 16-year-old neighbor in 2010. Last year, another child was accidentally shot by his neighbor and died. There are dozens of these cases annually, although they are eclipsed by “real” firearm tragedies.
At the midpoint in my career, I wrote a guidebook for officers on firearms identification. The purpose of the book was to give officers in the field a photo lineup of guns for investigations. Occasionally, it was handy when interviewing robbery victims.
I arranged firearm photos, taken mostly with the best camera I could find—at that time a digital whose features are trumped by the most Spartan of cell phone cameras today. I grouped the photos into logical collections: autos, revolvers, etc. Most notably, I photographed the guns pointed at the shooter, whose purpose was to serve as a memory cue post-incident.
I had some firearms available for the photos. I didn’t have them all. However, amongst my friends, I had plenty of Airsoft and replica firearms for the photos. That’s right; I used replica firearms to identify the real thing for actual investigations. Why? Because even in static photos, where the viewer has plenty of time to view a photo lineup of a firearm at several angles, most people, even firearms “experts” can’t distinguish between a real gun and a product designed or altered to look like one.
How an administrator should respond to an incident
As I penned this article, I did a search of incidents where replica firearms were involved in police incidents. One article popped up on my radar of an incident that happened recently (August 27, 2012) in Chowchilla, Calif., not two hours from my home, in the sweltering Central Valley.
Officers in Chowchilla responded to a 911 call from a cell phone. The report was a threatened suicide. Officers found Tina McLure lying in a vacant lot. According to the initial reports, she (allegedly) pointed a replica handgun at officers, whose response, based on the information known at the time, was exactly what we train officers to do—assume the weapon is real.
Chief Jay Varney’s statement about the incident was exactly the type of statement that demonstrates his qualifications as a leader:
“If you saw someone holding it, you wouldn’t have any idea whether it was real or not, unless you were standing real close. It appeared to be a real gun, and she would not listen to the officers demanding that she drop the weapon.”
Eight days retired
It is nearly impossible in most situations for an officer to fully view a replica firearm, let alone a partially obscured one in low light, and determine if it is the real thing. Dan Gray, a retired police sergeant and primary instructor at Trident Firearms Academy (actually my retired sergeant and my former shift supervisor) shared a story about his armed encounter after being retired only eight days.
Dan was walking back to his hotel in Santa Ana, Calif. from dinner a half-block away. It was 2115 hours and, true to form, he was operating in Condition Yellow. He passed a man talking on a cell phone wearing business casual, evidently talking business.
From the bushes nearby two men stepped out, one with his hand on the butt of a gun in his armpit. They were wearing the usual uniforms for this type of profession: hoodies and bandannas. While looking at the gun, Dan told me he was thinking “Wow, that’s a Beretta Cougar,” for a short moment. Dan Gray gave up his wallet (which was a dummy wallet—not the one with a badge and credentials).
When the bad guys demanded his cell phone, Dan maneuvered himself between Guy-with-the-gun and Guy-without-the-gun. The latter got Dan’s cell phone, smashed decisively in his face. All my verbal harassment to try to get Dan to switch to a smartphone ended the moment after someone else’s DNA adorned his flip phone. Both now faced The Real Gun, business end first.
Dan told me that when he drew his real gun, the fake gun suspect’s arm was already in motion to jettison his replica bullet magnet, which flew to the ground. Dan got the attention of Business Casual, who dialed 911. Dan held the suspects at gunpoint, now arguably two of the luckiest criminals in the world.
Since there are a half dozen morals to this story (Operate in Condition Yellow, always carry a gun, flip phones work well on cartilage, one wallet for LE creds, the other for credit cards, and many more), I have deliberately left out a great bit of detail, especially the part about the first arriving unit flying rotary wing and illuminating the entire scene.
To get back to the point of this story: Dan didn’t suspect it was a replica gun until the suspect was willing to dump it when facing a real one, which could have been post-shooting. He didn’t confirm it was a replica gun until he saw it up close.
Dan is a firearms instructor with over 30 years of experience. He teaches hundreds of law enforcement and civilian students annually and has seen more guns in more configurations than most of us. He cannot distinguish a real one from a fake one at contact difference, simply because they were not designed to be distinguished from one another.
In most states, owning a replica firearm is perfectly legal, but brandishing is a crime. In NYC, possessing an Airsoft gun is a crime without a firearms license, unless it is brightly painted or clear, which actually makes it a greater liability for officers. This actually originates in federal law, by the way. Consider this: What if officers lowered their muzzles every time they saw a brightly painted muzzle? Any guesses who will begin painting their muzzles? Secondly, if owning a toy is illegal to a civilian and they were knowingly transporting it in their possession, wouldn’t they be inclined to run, fight, act suspiciously if they had one, and therefore the law itself places the public in danger? This will make sense when one reviews some of the subjective arguments against the 3 Strikes law in California.
Since I own several Airsoft guns and frequently drool over Pyramid Air’s website myself, it’s important to discuss what responsible Airsoft, bb gun and pellet gun users say about their use. Airsoft users like to fly under the radar by responsibly casing their tools. The forums always have an experienced user who tells others they should treat their instruments like the real thing, never exposing them in public. It is well known that they will be treated like firearms until empirical evidence says they aren’t.
It is important to go into “it’s a replica, not a real gun” mode as soon as possible, despite the adrenaline flow. The best way for an officer to do this is to completely “out-skill” the suspect. How does one do that? Train, train, train.
Constant training means an officer’s skill is better than the best shooter out there and one only has to overcome a suspect’s dumb luck. Decision making also keeps an officer’s upper hand. For example, I always had a magazine of eight one-ounce slugs (plus 12 additional rounds on the gun) for a “person with a gun” call. This was a result of a decision made long before getting in the car. This gun was (and still is) sighted at 100 yards, my preferred standoff distance. Since I was toting a shotgun, I was often cover for someone handcuffing. For the record, it’s always been a Remington 870 Express Tactical. If I was still in a patrol car, I would switch to a Versa Max, a more flexible platform with the same reliability.
Do not be politically correct
In police work, political correctness is dangerous. Communication has to be brief and direct, and pointing a gun at unarmed people can be tactically sound. I know that armchair quarterbacking does not support this, but I tell students to point their guns directly at suspect, finger out of the trigger until it’s time to do otherwise. Later, the weapon, or replica, can be determined. If this does not play well in local newspapers, that’s too bad.
Replica firearms have their place in the world, but like any other instrument, they are subject to the discretion of the user. They create a special issue for the law enforcement officer. Like any special law enforcement issue, training is the key.
Lindsey Bertomen is a retired police officer who teaches at Hartnell College in Salinas, California. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.