On the night of Nov. 1, two Lodi police officers drew their weapons and took cover. In the darkness, the officers could only see the silhouette of an automatic rifle resting on the lap of a man sitting on a bus bench near the intersection of Oak and Washington streets. They yelled at the man to drop his weapon and put his arms in the air.
Officers soon found the weapon was a fake — an Airsoft gun designed to look like an assault rifle.
Neither officer could tell the difference.
Neither could a Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputy who, just days earlier, had shot and killed a 13-year-old Santa Rosa boy after reportedly mistaking the teen’s Airsoft gun for an AK-47 assault rifle.
The Oct. 22 shooting death has sparked a national debate over the realistic appearance of pellet, BB and Airsoft guns, and whether new regulations are needed to prevent future confusion.
Now, with the holiday season approaching and many parents planning to purchase these toy weapons, Lodi police are asking the public to use appropriate caution and realize that replica weapons can force officers to make split-second decisions with potentially tragic consequences.
“It’s very difficult for officers who are placed in those situations,” Lodi Police Lt. Sierra Brucia said. “They have to make a life-or-death decision without having the chance to fully examine that weapon, and if the person isn’t following commands or listening to the officer ... that’s where some of these tragic situations can happen.”
Brucia knows firsthand the difficulties replica weapons can create for officers.
In 2005, Brucia was staked out undercover with Sgt. Mike Kermgard at a gas station in Lodi, tracking a man suspected of several armed robberies along the Highway 99 corridor. When both officers confronted Chad Joseph Morrow in the parking lot, the 25-year-old suspect pulled a weapon out of his waistband and pointed it toward the two officers.
The officers fired simultaneously, striking Morrow several times.
It wasn’t until the following day that Brucia learned the weapon Morrow brandished was not a handgun, but an Airsoft pistol designed to resemble a 9mm Beretta.
“It wasn’t until after the fact that we determined the firearm was actually a replica firearm, but at the time we didn’t know,” Brucia said. “You have to make that decision very quickly, and at that time I just thought he was going to shoot us.”
Morrow eventually recovered from his injuries and served time in prison.
There have been several similar officer-involved shootings in recent years, including a 15-year-old Texas boy who was fatally shot in his middle school hallway in 2012, and a 12-year-old Arkansas boy shot to death in a convenience store parking lot in 2007.
In the latest case, Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Erick Gelhaus, a 24-year veteran, weapons expert and military veteran, said he shot and killed Andy Lopez after mistaking the boy’s Airsoft gun for an AK-47.
“It’s frustrating, because you’re trained to shoot someone who’s trying to kill you, and you realize after the fact he wasn’t going to be able to kill me with that particular weapon,” Brucia said. “But you don’t know that at the time. After the fact, you have to reconcile that it wasn’t a real gun, but it doesn’t change anything. I would have still made the same decision in that situation if I had it to do all over again.”
California lawmakers have long discussed adopting new regulations that would help distinguish between real and replica firearms, including requiring Airsoft guns to be painted bright colors.
Currently, an orange tip is required on most Airsoft guns, but Brucia said some people paint it black in order to better mimic a real firearm.
Joey Rubio, owner of CQB City, a Stockton-based law enforcement training center and Airsoft arena, said people are drawn to the realism of the replica firearms, and if they were required to be a bright color, some people would still paint them black.
“It’s not something that’s going to prevent the problem,” Rubio said. “What’s going to prevent the problem is better education about these things.”
Rubio said his staff briefs customers about proper conduct while possessing an Airsoft gun.
“There are enough safeties on there or precautions being taken that a reasonable, intelligent person would know this and not do something like take it out on the streets,” Rubio said.
With the holiday season fast approaching, Brucia is encouraging parents planning to purchase these replica firearms as gifts to discuss the precautions their children should take and potential dangers they present.
Brucia discourages people from openly carrying replica firearms in public, and suggests they secure them in cases when taking them from one place to another.
In addition, he said, they should not paint over the orange tip and understand that citizens could call police if they see someone carrying a replica firearm in public.
Contact reporter Kristopher Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org.