Editor's note: "When a suspect points a gun—or something that looks like a gun—at an officer, time becomes that officer's most critical ally or enemy," says Dr. Bill Lewinski, a law enforcement expert on time and response under stress and Executive Director of the Force Science Research Center. "His or her ability to make a split-second decision to fire can, and often does, mean the difference between that officer living or dying. "Speaking from a physiological standpoint, it’s virtually impossible for an officer to visually distinguish between a real gun and a fake one when faced with something that looks as realistic as some of the 'toy' guns on the market," says Lewinski. Street Survival Seminar instructor Dave Smith says, "You have to assume every gun is real. Why would someone point a toy gun at us?" Read more in Smith's article: But what if it isn't really a gun?
FORT WAYNE, Ind. — Indiana State Police are concerned that the growing popularity of toy guns that closely resemble real firearms could lead to tragedy if officers mistake the toys youngsters use in backyard games for a deadly weapon.
State Police Detective Mark Heffelfinger said the black plastic "airsoft" guns are so realistic that children and young adults who use them for fun could put themselves in danger if they encounter a police office while playing fantasy games.
"If you look at these guns from 3 feet away, you can't tell the difference," he said, pointing one of the pistols menacingly. "Not enough to bet your life on."
Heffelfinger said own son, Cory Heffelfinger — an Auburn police officer — almost shot a teenager who was carrying a plastic handgun closely resembling a Beretta 9 mm pistol. The plastic replicas shoot plastic BBs at low velocities.
When the younger Heffelfinger responded late one night in August 2004 to a report of three juveniles with a weapon, he drew his service pistol and pointed it at one of the teens when the youngster approached with his friends, carrying the airsoft pistol.
Luckily, Cory Heffelfinger didn’t fire, but when the teen was told that he had almost been shot, he asked officers to take away his plastic gun.
Airsoft guns blur the line between real firearms and toys and elevate the old game of playing backyard wars or cops and robbers to a whole new level.
On the streets, police officers say they don’t have the luxury of checking to see whether a weapon is a fake. They are forced to confront airsoft guns as if they’re the real thing.
“We can’t afford to worry about those things,” Mark Heffelfinger said. “You can’t wait to see if it’s real.”
The plastic guns come in countless shapes, sizes and price ranges, but they’re all patterned after real firearms, and most are meant to look as close to real as possible — sometimes down to trade marked logos.
Usually the only way to easily tell them apart from real guns is the distinct orange tips on the ends of the barrels. If those are painted over, taped up or broken off, they can become indistinguishable.
The toy guns originally came from Japan where firearms laws are strict.
Because there are no legal age requirements to buy or own an airsoft gun, school officials say parents don’t realize the problems that could arise from putting a toy resembling a real weapon in a child’s hands.
“Parents need to understand these dangers. They’re not illegal, but they are dangerous,” said Anita Gross, the school-safety officer at Southwest Allen County Schools.
Serious players, who treat airsoft as a sport, say the guns themselves aren’t the problem.
Matt Traster, a Butler police officer who is one of the founders of the Butler Airsoft club, said the toy guns provide a new way to play war games and cops and robbers.
Traster, 34, and about 25 other men make up a group of airsoft players who dress in camouflage and combat fatigues on the weekends and use their airsoft guns to play advanced and highly realistic combat scenarios.
He said playing airsoft is a way to get some exercise and hang out with his buddies. But he said that as a police office he’s had his own run-ins with irresponsible use of airsoft guns.
“I don’t even like to call them toys,” Traster said. “If you’re going to use an airsoft gun, you should treat it as a real weapon.”
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