I wrote Saturday’s editorial (“No need for toys that cost children’s lives”) supporting legislation requiring that BB guns and pellet guns be brightly colored or translucent so they won’t be mistaken for real firearms. That’s the state law for squirt guns, Nerf guns and other toys. But it didn’t apply to the air soft rifle carried by Andy Lopez, which resembled an AK-47 assault rifle, all the more so because its orange tip (a requirement of federal law) was missing.
Here’s something I didn’t address: When it comes to guns, cops may be colorblind.
In 2000, a convenience store on Humboldt Street in Santa Rosa was robbed. The store owner told 911 dispatchers, “I think it’s a toy gun. He doesn’t have a real gun. It’s a toy gun.” In that instance, the toy gun was painted black. The robber was shot, and the police chief said, “They were able to consider that in the split second they had, but the officers made a choice that their lives were at risk.” In clearing the officers six months later, a deputy district attorney said the same thing, displaying a picture of the toy alongside a real handgun, much as police did in the Andy Lopez case. Police also tell stories of real firearms painted to resemble toys, so, as the editorial acknowledged, there aren’t any guarantees associated with a law mandating bright colors for BB guns.
What does all this mean?
I’m wrestling with that. As a boy growing up in the post-World War II era, I carried a lot of replica guns around the neighborhood with my friends, never imagining any real danger. As the father of a young teenager, I watch gleeful boys chasing one another around with their Nerf guns. As the brother of a veteran cop, I hope he never has to tell the difference between a toy and the real thing.
I’m sure that toys should look like toys, not like real firearms. Kids have imaginations, cops have to make split-second decisions. Why risk a tragedy? I understand that a law mandating bright colors for toy guns won’t prevent every future tragedy. I’ll settle for some of them – and hope for most of them. Finally, I’m pretty sure the deputies in Santa Rosa had more options – better ones, too – than aggressive engagement or praying that Andy wasn’t carrying a real rifle.
Studying those options and applying them in the future may be the one positive thing that can come out of this awful chapter in local history. The community, our elected officials and law enforcement need to engage in that conversation.
What do you think?
– Jim Sweeney