It was my wife who interrupted my train of thought. “Did you see this thing on the news? A boy got shot in Cleveland, and they say he had a pellet gun.”
“Oh boy,” I thought. “This sucks.”
The facts of the case, as reported by the Associated Press on Nov. 26, appear to be as follows: “Tamir Rice was shot Saturday (Nov. 22, 2014) by an officer responding to a call about someone with a gun near a playground. Police say the boy’s airsoft gun looked like a real firearm and was missing an orange safety indicator. Police say Tamir pulled it from his waistband after being told to raise his hands.”
What was originally reported to be a pellet gun turned out to be an airsoft pistol. Airsoft rifles and pistols are replicas of firearms that shoot 6 mm plastic BBs. Airsoft guns are considered to be non-lethal and, for the most part, non-injurious (eye protection is required and the only other airsoft injury that I have heard of is a chipped tooth), and they are used for target shooting, scenario play, firearms practice, and force-on-force training by various government agencies. By law, all airsoft pistols and rifles sold in the United States are equipped with an orange safety tip that indicates that they are not actual firearms. A Wikipedia report on the shooting says that the orange safety tip on Rice’s airsoft pistol was “removed.”
This is a lamentable situation; any way you play it, it is a tragedy for everyone involved: for Tamir Rice, his family, and for the officers involved in the shooting.
My daughter, a grown woman with a career of her own, said emphatically, “He (meaning Tamir Rice) shouldn’t be dead.”
I spoke with a friend who is a gun-carrying sworn officer to find out some of the basics of police training. Police are trained to regard any situation with a firearm as serious and to regard any report of a weapon as a real weapon until proven otherwise. They are also trained to consider “context.” A person with a gun in the woods may have a reason to be there (he’s hunting), whereas a person with a gun outside a grocery store or on a playground is a far different situation.
“Perception is incredibly important,” my friend said. “If you point an airsoft gun out a window and someone sees it and thinks it is a real gun, people are going to treat you like it is a real gun. It doesn’t matter what you intended, what matters is what the other person perceives.”
Further, police are trained to address the threat – that’s their job. If someone reports “a person with a gun,” the police have to deal with it. To do otherwise, is to risk that the “person with a gun” may kill or injure others.
If the police perceive that they are under threat of deadly physical force – for example, by a person reaching for a gun or pointing a gun at them – they are trained to respond to the threat of deadly physical force with deadly physical force to defend themselves or someone else. Further, they are trained to shoot until the threat is neutralized. A kid who is taking an airsoft gun to a place where it may be perceived as a real weapon is putting himself in harm’s way, and you can’t hit reset afterwards and play the game again.
So what does that mean for the readers of this blog? First, don’t walk around in public areas with an airsoft gun, air rifle or air pistol. Don’t show it and don’t point it at people you don’t know. Keep it on private property (or other areas where it is proper to have it, like a gun range), and don’t leave the property with it. If traveling in a car, make sure that it can’t be seen. And don’t remove, cover, paint or tape over the orange safety tip on airsoft pistols and rifles; it could make a misunderstanding over whether an airsoft “weapon” is real even more dangerous.
If you are a parent, drill these principles into your kid’s heads. Make sure that they understand that’s it is not what they intend, but what others perceive, that can make the difference between fun and tragedy in handling airsoft guns and pellet and BB guns.
Further, if you will be shooting on your property, and there is the possibility that the neighbor may see “a person with a gun,” talk to them ahead of time, and make sure they understand what you are doing, and that you are concerned for everyone’s safety.
Til next time, aim true and shoot straight.
– Jock Elliott