Rep. Ford urges Congress to get tougher with toy gun makers

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By Michael Romain

Editor

Last month, Rep. La Shawn Ford (8th) called on Congress to draft legislation that would require manufacturers of replica guns to make them brightly colored.

"Replica guns or BB guns can look identical to a real firearm, and they also share the same potential to produce similar senseless and tragic results when in the hands of children," Ford said in a statement.

"This legislation calls for Congress to act to protect children and give responding law enforcement officers a better chance of distinguishing what is a deadly threat and what is a toy. Officers must make split-second, life or death decisions when responding to calls indicating an armed individual. We owe it to law enforcement officials to give additional information so they may make the right call to protect our communities," he said.

Ford joins Alicia Reese among state lawmakers nationwide who have proposed stronger government intervention in the manufacture of toy guns. Reese, an Ohio state representative, announced in November that she would push for legislation requiring more kinds of replica guns, such as BB and pellet guns, to be brightly colored.

Similar legislation, which mandates manufacturers to paint BB guns and simulated weapons fluorescent on the trigger guards and on certain areas of the weapons, was enacted last September in California. 

In 1988, California State Senator David Roberti spearheaded passage of a law requiring toy gun manufacturers to outfit the products with bright safety tips or paint them in bright colors. 

Reese's announcement came after two residents of her state – 12-year-old Tamir Rice and 22-year-old John Crawford III – were both shot dead within roughly three months of each other by police officers who mistook their fake guns for real ones.

In his statement, Ford referenced a 1990 U.S. Department of Justice report that put the number of law enforcement incidents involving toy guns at more than 200 per year, a number that has "almost certainly grown [since then], putting many more officers and citizens in deadly jeopardy," Ford said. 

But some say that Reese's and Ford's proposed regulatory measures won't stop children, or adults, from manipulating even brightly painted toy guns to seem more real by painting over them, for instance.

Federal law requires manufacturers of replica guns to plug their barrels with a blaze orange ring, but that ring had been removed from Rice's toy gun. Someone called 911 and reported that the 12-year-old was brandishing an airsoft pistol in a park and pointing it at people.

Although the caller told the emergency dispatcher that the gun didn't appear real, the responding officers didn't seem to pick up on that distinction. Rice was dead within seconds of Cleveland Police arriving onto the scene.

According to the 1990 Department of Justice study, the nature of the emergency dispatch play a critical role in how law enforcement incidents involving replica guns are resolved.

"Many of the incidents where police used deadly force against a person who possessed a toy gun were the product of a call to the police such as an armed robbery, 'man with a gun', or a 'nature unknown' disturbance," the report states.

"In these cases, the dispatcher was responsible for obtaining as many facts as possible about the incident and passing this information along to the officers responding to the call. When the possibility exists that a party is armed, the responding officers are so advised. This information places the officer in a heightened state of apprehension under the assumption that a gun does, in fact, exist. Whether that gun may be a toy is not even a factor in the equation. The point to note is that the officers will have a predetermined mental state to expect a gun, thus the officers' reactions will be 'programmed' to deal with this threat."

Too much insistence on regulation, some argue, may work to obfuscate other, perhaps more fundamental, dynamics at work--such as race. Both Rice and Crawford were African American males.

"More subtly, a focus on regulation serves to excise the deaths of Tamir Rice and John Crawford III from the larger conversation on race and policing that began anew with the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.," according to an article published by the New York Times Magazine last month.

"What little information exists on police shootings of people with toy guns suggests that blacks and Latinos are overrepresented among the victims. The 26 years that have passed since Roberti's proposition have proved too little about the efficacy of blaze orange, and too much about the inevitability of tragedy in neighborhoods where even children at play can be presumed guilty," the article states. 

According to Ford, however, the focus on regulation and race doesn't have to be an either/or proposition – particularly when it comes to matters of life and death.

"With gun violence plaguing the streets of Chicago and many of its suburbs, we must do everything in our power to make a safer environment for our kids," Ford said.

CONTACT: michael@austinweeklynews.com 

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