In 2014, a Cleveland police officer killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was playing at a park with a toy gun – a gun that police thought was real. In the intervening years, police officers have killed approximately 153 more people who were holding toy guns. Investigative reporter Alain Stephens, a Texas Standard alumnus who now contributes to The Trace, says these toy guns look surprisingly realistic, and that’s by design.
“Gun companies and gun manufacturers have been essentially selling branding and schematics to these toy manufacturers to make them exactingly real replicas of real-life guns,” Stephens says. “They’ve been getting into these lucrative agreements that have lasted sometimes decades to make these guns just look almost as real as possible.”
He says it sometimes takes a while before police officers realize that they’re dealing with a fake gun.
“We’re having detectives come in, taking crime scene photographs, before they find out, oh my God, the gun that this person was holding is fake, is plastic,” Stephens says.
The toy guns that police mistake for real weapons are often known as “airsoft” guns, which are loaded with plastic pellets. Stephens says the French company Cybergun, which manufactured the airsoft pistol held by Tamir Rice, operates like “a real-life gun company.”
“They had hired executives, licensing gurus from Smith & Wesson, special forces generals,” Stephens says.
He also says CEO Jerome Marsac even brokered a deal with Mikhail Kalashnikov, the inventor of the AK-47 rifle, to make airsoft replicas of that weapon.
Stephens says federal law requires an orange tip on the end of the barrel of all airsoft guns, including guns foreign companies want to import to the U.S. But there’s no law requiring the tip to stay on once the gun is purchased, and Stephens says it can easily be removed. What’s more, he says airsoft manufacturers often sell replacement metal tips “to make the gun look more realistic.”
“You can buy one of these tips, and you just take it off in a matter of seconds,” Stephens says.
He says now, lawmakers and police departments are telling their communities, and especially police dispatchers, about these fake guns to try to prevent officer-involved shootings with people who may be carrying them.
“That’s how they’ve been trained: to treat all weapons as if they are real,” Stephens says. “It’s a very hard decision for [officers] to make, and a lot of people have been getting killed over the last couple of years because of this.”
Written by Caroline Covington.