Supporters of California's proposed Imitation Firearms Safety Act say that painting all pellet, Airsoft and BB guns with bright colors will help save lives by reducing confusion among law enforcement officers in heat-of-the-moment situations.
The measure stems in large part from a fatal shooting in Santa Rosa, Calif., last fall. A veteran deputy with the Sonoma County Sheriff's department shot 13-year-old Andy Lopez after spotting him walking on the street with what turned out to be a fake AK-style gun that looked real to officers.
"Often times what happens is police officers confuse it for the real thing and a tragedy happens, like young Andy Lopez who was shot and killed," said State Sen. Kevin De León, who authored the measure.
The shooting sparked numerous protests and Lopez's parents have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit, accusing the officer of using excessive force.
At a press conference, Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office deputies showed how closely Lopez's replica resembled a real assault rifle, and details about the investigation revealed the deputy feared for his life after Lopez turned and allegedly raised the gun in his direction.
De León said legislation requiring toy gun makers to use bright colors would help prevent such tragedies.
"Orange, green, yellow — whatever that color may be,” he said. “So we can give law enforcement [officers], who have to make a split-second decision, within a nanosecond, ‘Is this the real thing or is this a fake?’"
But many in law enforcement see the issue differently.
"We don't have the luxury of making a decision in a split second, of whether or not this is a real gun, and it doesn't matter what color it is," said Gary Delagnes, a retired San Francisco police officer and now a consultant for the union.
Critics point out that guns that fire real ammunition are available in a rainbow of colors too, and that criminals will just paint their weapons in the hope that officers will hesitate long enough for them to escape — or to get a shot off first.
Delagnes said the real issue is having such realistic-looking weapons widely available to children.
"For God sakes, don't be walking down the streets. I mean, 13-years old, you should know by now," said the veteran retired officer. "God rest his soul, but some of the blame would have to lie, in my opinion, with the parents."
The Imitation Firearms Safety Act recently sailed out of the California Senate, and now it heads to the Assembly. It's De León's second attempt to get toy guns painted a bright color. His original measure was introduced in 2011, after a police shooting in Los Angeles left a 13-year-old who had a replica weapon paralyzed.
That bill failed to pass out of the California State Assembly.