Toys Should Look Like Toys. Guns Should Look Like Guns.

Posted on November 24, 2014


And Airsoft isn’t really a toy.

Here we go again. In Ohio, a 12-year-old boy has been killed by police who mistook his Airsoft pistol for a real gun. We have been here before: the outraged parent, the makeshift memorial at the scene. I will be the first to tell you that police across the nation are increasingly out of control, but I don’t think this is one of those cases.

So, you’re on patrol. You get a report of a male in the vicinity of a recreation center, waving a gun and pointing it at people. When you arrive, this is the gun you see:


I am very familiar with guns, and this looks pretty dang real to me, especially if it’s at a distance and I can’t get a good view of it. If the police report is accurate, the boy did not respond to police orders to raise his hands, instead reaching for the gun in his waistband and pulling it out. We can Monday-morning-quarterback all we like, but in that moment I’m pretty sure all you see is a deadly weapon about to come your way.

Frankly, the kid should not have been playing with the thing or pointing it at people: Airsoft is not a toy, it is an air gun which fires an actual projectile. So why is this not a firearm under Federal law? A mere technicality, really: firearms use explosives to propel their projectiles. Air guns use air, and are made to have low kinetic energy and a short range; but they still fire a projectile, and can still be pretty damaging. When you run around playing Airsoft or paintball in the woods, ballistic eye protection is the bare-minimum safety requirement, and it actually hurts when you get hit (check some images here). Given the safety concerns with any projectile-firing device being handled in a public area, whoever called 911 was right to do so, and still would have been right even if they knew it was “only” an Airsoft gun.  The things do not belong on a public thoroughfare.

Still, these replica guns are not “real weapons,” and that brings me to my second point: there should not be any such thing as a toy or hobby item that is made to be the spitting image of a real, no-kidding, high-kinetic-energy weapon like a Colt, or Glock, or Beretta, or AK, or whatever. This gets kids (and adults) killed year after year, and the problem is not new; back in the 1980s this was enough of a problem to warrant a special paper by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which found at the time that police used force, or threatened to use force, in about 200 incidents per year involving realistic toy guns.

Obviously, there had to be a way to distinguish the fake from the real. Enter the orange safety tip; but people often remove them, as was done with the pistol in the Ohio shooting. Another suggestion that repeatedly comes up is to make all fake guns in some bright, toy-appropriate color; but perversely, real guns come in those colors too, especially in an attempt to appeal to women and girls (ugh, I can’t stand it):


I’m a gun-rights advocate, but this blurring of lines between real weapons, air guns, and plain toys like water pistols or bubble guns, is dangerous. It has been getting people killed at least since the 1980s. We have to do better.

Just three states… recognizing the danger here… have prohibitions on handling or carrying replica air guns in public. Now that’s a good start, especially since they’re not toys anyway. Here are some other things I would do:

Never allow real guns to be produced in any color other than gunmetal colors, or black.

Never allow toy guns to be shaped like or colored like the real thing.

Air guns, which are intermediate projectile-firing devices including Airsoft, BB guns, pellet guns or paintball guns, should have some characteristic color or markings, and should never be produced as replicas of real weapons. Having something that “looks cool” isn’t worth anyone’s life.

Why is that so hard?