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.