AP NEWS

Police raise alarm about BB guns appearing as real weapons

June 1, 2019
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St. Paul Police Sgt. Tina Kill shows a realistic-looking BB gun in the police property room in St. Paul, Minn. on Wednesday, May 22, 2019. Officers have come face-to-face with young people holding BB guns that couldn't readily be differentiated from actual guns. "I would like to see these (realistic-looking BB guns) outlawed," she said. (Jean Pieri/Pioneer Press via AP)

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Police rushed to a St. Paul middle school last month after a report of a student carrying a handgun in his pocket during gym class.

It turned out to be a realistic-looking BB gun that fell from his pants as he played basketball.

A week earlier, in an unrelated case, a 27-year-old man reported a driver pointed a rifle that looked like an AR-15 at him. Police found the driver, who said it was a BB gun.

As St. Paul police respond to calls of shootings and shots fired, they’re also sounding the alarm about people carrying BB guns, air pistols and other replica guns that increasingly look like the real thing, the Twin Cities Pioneer Press reported.

Police say they’re causing real fear for people on the other end of the barrel. And officers also cannot immediately tell they’re fake, which could lead to a deadly confrontation.

When police get a 911 call reporting someone with a weapon that looks like a gun, they have to respond as quickly as possible, said Sgt. Tina Kill, a St. Paul police gun investigator.

“If you want to play with a BB gun, go hunt in a legal area, like farmland, or go to a gun range where you can practice in a secure environment and you’re not going to cause panic with your neighbors,” she said. “These real-looking BB guns put everyone at risk — the people who have them, the community and the officers.”

Kill warns that people shouldn’t try to determine on their own whether a gun is real or fake, and she urges them to call 911.

There have been 10 instances of a student bringing a toy or replica gun to a St. Paul public school this school year; it happened nine times the previous school year, said Laurie Olson, the school district’s director of security and emergency management.

“What we’re seeing in the last few years is that they look so real and that’s the really concerning part,” Olson said. “In the past, they used to be more easily identifiable as a toy or a pellet gun.”

Why do students bring BB or Airsoft guns to school? Their reasons have ranged from saying they forgot it was in their backpack, they had it for protection going to and from school, or they wanted to show it to a friend, Olson said.

In the incident last month, police were sent to Linwood Monroe Arts Plus’ middle school campus on a report of a student with a handgun. A 15-year-old student told a sergeant the gun was “fake” and was hidden in a hallway near the gym.

Police found a realistic-looking BB gun and arrested the student.

“The fear that created was incredible,” Olson said of the incident. The principal gathered all students in the auditorium to talk about the seriousness of it, she said.

Students can face criminal charges, along with discipline up to expulsion, for bringing a replica gun to school.

School district officials are looking into a public-awareness campaign with the police department at the start of the next school year, Olson said.

Around 5 a.m. on a Sunday in April, officers were called to a disturbance on Case Avenue, several blocks from Johnson Parkway.

A 19-year-old was standing on a handgun, leading an officer to unholster his own gun and point it at the young man. The officer directed everyone to move away from the gun.

Someone in the group said it was a BB gun, though it appeared identical to a real firearm, according to the police department.

A 17-year-old wouldn’t back away from the weapon and another officer went to detain her, but she pushed him.

As the officer tried to get her into custody, a handgun fell from her onto the ground. It also turned out to be a BB gun. Police arrested both teens.

The incident illustrates the dangers posed by replica guns, said Sgt. Mike Ernster, a St. Paul police spokesman.

“In the heat of the moment, there’s no way to determine whether these guns are a BB gun or not,” he said.

There have been instances locally and around the United States of police officers shooting people, including teens, who were armed with a gun that appeared real but turned out to be a BB gun.

In 2012, St. Paul police officers fatally shot Melvin Fletcher Jr., 20, after he robbed the Kowalski’s grocery store on Grand Avenue. Numerous witnesses described Fletcher as being armed with a handgun during the holdup.

An officer who recovered Fletcher’s gun after the shooting believed it was a semi-automatic handgun until he picked it up and realized it was plastic, according to a police report. It was a Beretta Airsoft pistol. A grand jury determined the officers were authorized to use deadly force.

In 2008, Minneapolis police pleaded with parents to take replica firearms away from their children after officers shot and wounded a 15-year-old. Police said the teen confronted officers with a realistic-looking fake gun.

At Airsoft Station in Oakdale, most people come in to buy gear for “Airsofting” — a competitive sport similar to paintball — said Isaac O’Keefe, the store’s lead technician.

The toy guns use a plastic pellet that’s lighter than a BB, and people play on designated Airsoft fields or private land out in the country. Store employees emphasize that people should be wearing eye protection, and they also talk to them about transporting the replica guns safely and legally, O’Keefe said.

Airsoft Station sells Airsoft guns with a blaze orange tip, but the replica guns are otherwise “indistinguishable at first glance from a real firearm,” O’Keefe said.

People prefer their Airsoft guns to appear realistic because they want to look “tactically cool,” O’Keefe said. Some purchase them to practice gun safety and firearm training, so it’s helpful to have a replica that looks and functions similarly to real guns.

“Our goal is we want people to know how to be safe with them,” O’Keefe said. “They’re really fun to play with. But because they look so realistic, if people don’t know how to treat them safely, it can end up really ruining it for everyone else.”

There were 221 replica guns found in St. Paul and turned into the police property room last year and 85 so far this year. In some cases, officers issue a warning and don’t confiscate the BB gun, said Kill, the gun investigator.

It’s against Minnesota law to carry a BB gun in public — except in places for hunting and target shooting — unless it’s unloaded and in a case. It’s also illegal to fire a BB gun in St. Paul, other than at target ranges.

The St. Paul city attorney’s office has charged 12 people with BB gun-related cases this year, not far behind the number charged in all of last year — 16.

In recent years, police have presented fewer cases for charging consideration, according to the city attorney’s office, and the number of prosecutions went from 35 in 2015 to 20 in 2017.

Police said they’re no longer citing people if they have a BB gun in a vehicle, but not on their person. And if someone uses a BB gun in a crime, they could be charged with aggravated robbery or aggravated assault, a more serious offense than BB gun possession.

Kill, who has been an officer for 24 years, said the biggest change she’s seen with BB guns in her career is how realistic they now appear. In the past, when officers found a young person with a BB gun “it was clear what it was because it was orange or so big and cartoonish, it was nothing like we’re seeing now.”

Recently, Kill set five guns on a cart in the property room.

“Where is the real gun?” she asked.

Three had a Glock inscription, one said Swiss Arms and the last was marked as a Powerline. She pointed out one Glock, which was her unloaded duty weapon; the rest were BB guns.

“You cannot tell the difference when you’re looking at this and certainly not if it’s being pointed at you,” Kill said. “It’s a bad idea to try and play with these weapons in the city, especially where we have actual gun violence happening.”

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Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com

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