NASHVILLE, Tenn. – 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 Micheal Hoover knows a fair amount about guns as a sniper instructor for a Tennessee SWAT 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, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. 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 Rep. 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, Ark. 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."
Federal law requires toy guns or imitations to bear an orange tip to indicate they're not real.
However, lawmakers say those tips are often disguised or removed.
"It only takes 30 seconds for a kid to either take a marker or some paint, or shoe polish, and that orange tip is gone," said Deberry. He said the imitation guns are nearly identical in size, design and color to real ones.
"One of the imitation weapons I got at a convenience store looked very much like the assault weapons that the secret service and other FBI agents carry under their suits," he said. "Another one was a handgun that had a silencer on it."
New Jersey state Sen. Bob Smith has proposed legislation that would make it a crime to remove the tips or "obscure" a firearm by adding a tip to it.
"If police are called to the scene and don't see those tips, then they open fire because it appears the person has a deadly weapon," said Smith. "The officer doesn't have too many choices."
In Florida, state Sen. Gary Siplin has a bill that would prohibit individuals from carrying a paintball gun in a vehicle. He said he had been told about youngsters brandishing such guns while driving. He said if they're bold enough to do that they might use the fake weapon to commit a crime.
"Sometime these people try to go into a store and try to rob it with a toy gun, and if the police come they may shoot thinking it's a real gun," Siplin said.
The leading U.S. opponent of gun control doesn't think much of legislation that seeks to control fake guns.
National Rifle Association spokesman Ashley Varner said anti-toy gun legislation is "silly" because "it doesn't deal with issues of crime."
"It won't eradicate the human element of the crime," she said. "It doesn't target getting criminals off the street."