Texas police are reporting a spike in crimes committed with imitation weapons like BB guns because the guns are cheap, easy to get, and criminals believe that if they are caught, they will get lesser sentences because they did not commit the crime with a real gun, the Washington Post is reporting.
BB guns can be bought without background checks for as little as $25.
If an imitation weapon is used in a crime, but the victim thinks it is a real weapon, it is enough to warrant a first-degree felony charge in the state of Texas and attract a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. New Jersey has a similar law in place, although with a lighter penalty. California also draws a differentiating line between committing a crime with a real or imitation weapon.
This year alone, Arlington police say there have been at least half a dozen cases of gang members using an air, toy, or BB gun to disturb the peace. Cook also revealed that police officers have responded to five armed robberies where the suspects involved were armed with fake guns.
John Convery of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association said he had not heard of too many cases in court involving a defendant perpetuating a crime with a fake weapon. However, he noted that many Texans were also licensed to carry firearms, so it was dangerous to brandish a real or fake weapon if one wanted to commit a crime. He said “if it looks like a gun and acts like a gun, the victim is going to believe it’s a gun.”
Cook agrees that officers have opened fire on armed suspects only to find out later that they were carrying imitation weapons. In El Paso this month, police killed a man who ran towards them waving what later panned out to be a BB gun, according to El Paso Times. Cook said “there’s no training in the world that will allow officers to make split-second decisions on the difference between real and fake guns.” He added that there was the chance that his department would lobby for a state law that prohibited the carrying of imitation weapons.
“We just don’t believe there’s a legitimate reason to manufacture them in a way that makes them look so real.”
Already some states have imposed tough restrictions on imitation weapons. In December, New York announced that 30 online retailers had agreed to stop selling realistic imitation guns. A law now requires fake guns to have brightly colored stripes down the barrel. Ten other states have also pushed through legislation over imitation firearms, but Texas is not among them. According to reports, many of the fake gun manufacturers are not even based in the U.S.
Last month, Cleveland officials reached a $6 million lawsuit settlement over the death of Tamir Rice, 12, who was shot by a white police officer as he was playing with a fake gun at a recreation center. The fake gun that Tamir borrowed from his friend was missing the striped colors that federal regulations had imposed to distinguish a fake gun from a real gun.
Tamir had been playing at the Cudell Recreation Center with his sister and friend. He had been pulling the toy gun from his pants and pointing it at people. A man who called 911 had told the dispatcher that the boy was “scaring the s**t of everyone.” He said the gun was probably a fake, but the message was not passed on to the police officer that arrived at the scene.
When the two Cleveland police officers arrived at the scene, an officer said he saw the 12-year-old reach for the gun tucked in his waistband; he fired twice, hitting the boy in the stomach with one shot. Tamir died at the MetroHealth Medical Center from his injuries the following day, according to the Washington Post.
President Jeff Follmer of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association said the officer had no idea that the boy was a 12-year-old and that it was a toy gun. He said the officer was concentrating more on his hands rather than his age. “We have to assume every gun is real. When we don’t, that’s the day we don’t go home.”
[Image via Shuttersock/KPG Ivary]