Concerns that realistic-looking toy weapons are confusing police and threatening safety have led 15 states to try going beyond gun control and cracking down on fake firearms.
Officer Michael Hoover knows a fair amount about guns as a sniper instructor for a Tennessee police commando 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 man was charged with aggravated assault after police found a black plastic 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.
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 take action.
Among those 15 states, seven bills limiting fake guns are pending this year and 21 have been enacted since 1990, the National Conference of State Legislatures says. Some states have enacted or are considering multiple measures. They range from prohibiting imitation firearms in vehicles to banning the toys from convenience stores.
Tennessee lawmakers are considering a proposal by state Representative 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 said he wants to prevent incidents like one last year in which a 12-year-old boy was killed in West Memphis, Arkansas.
DeAunta Farrow was shot by a police officer who said he thought the boy was carrying a gun and that the youngster refused to obey orders to halt. Investigators later said DeAunta 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 declined 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.”