Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The real problem with fake guns

The graveyard shift at the Walden Hess station ended at 7 a.m. for Viktor Gridin, and it ended with an empty cash register.

With only 36 minutes left in the shift, two men in black hooded sweatshirts walked in. They went to the newspaper rack. Gridin, the cashier, rubbed his chin, then put his hands in his pockets. The two walked up to the counter.

The guy on the right put a newspaper on the counter.

The guy on the left pulled out a black pistol and pointed it at Gridin's face.

Gridin emptied the drawer, slot by slot. He handed over the cash. The pistol went back in the pocket. The two walked out 40 seconds later with $294 in cash and a newspaper.

Another look at the video, and the gun looks real. Feels real in the hands of the officers who arrested the robbers. Cocks like a real gun. Heavy, too.

Gridin emptied the till like it was real.

But the pistol is a replica - a BB gun made to look like the real thing.

Imitation guns are easy to get, convincing in a stick-up, and possibly deadly for someone willing to commit a crime with a fake.

As a detective in Newburgh put it: "It can get you killed in a hurry."

John Peel and William Keator, the two men later arrested for the Hess robbery, both face felony second-degree robbery charges. Peel, who swapped his black-hooded sweatshirt for a blue Orange County Jail jumpsuit, says he was drunk at the time of the robbery.

As he says now: "Judgment seriously impaired."

Jaswinder Singh, 20, a driver for Syndicate Taxi in Middletown, was sure the gun a would-be robber put to the back of his head was fake.

"He said 'I'll blow your head off,'" Sing recalls of the attempted robbery in January. Then the robber smacked him on the head with it.

"I said 'Go ahead,' because I felt it was plastic. If it is a real gun, it's heavy. It would hurt."

State police believe the same people tried to rob other drivers two weeks later. When three teens were arrested for the attempted robberies, only a fake plastic gun was recovered.

The Town of Wallkill Police Department gets a couple of guns like this a month, almost all with the orange tip snapped off or colored over. City of Newburgh police says they get between five and 10 a week.

"When you're confronted, you don't see that," Wallkill Officer Anthony Kuhn says about the barrels. "Ask someone who's been robbed, and they'll tell you it was this big."

He holds up his hands in a circle the size of a cannon ball.

And what if somebody pulled one on a cop?

"One of our biggest concerns," Wallkill Chief Robert Hertman says, "is if somebody pointed one of these at a police officer, there would be no way to differentiate between one of these and a real weapon."

Last October, a village of Chester cop almost pulled his weapon on a 15-year-old boy with a pellet gun. In January, a sergeant for the Department of Veterans Affairs almost shot a Warwick High School student who pointed a BB gun at a girl.

Four days later, a sheriff's deputy in the state of Florida shot 15-year-old Christopher Penley in the head, killing him. Penley had pointed a plastic pellet gun at the deputy.

The orange tip had been painted black.

Walk into the Middletown Flea Market on Dolson Avenue any weekend, and you can find cheap made-in-China airsoft guns. Similar to BB guns, airsoft guns are imitation firearms that shoot plastic beads that could barely break the skin. Playing with airsoft guns is similar to playing with paintball guns; the point is to shoot your playmates. Show an ID that says you're at least 16, fork over as little as $6, and take one home. It's simple to paint over or just snap off the orange tip. On some plastic guns here, the tips are already black. These aren't like the metal BB gun that John Peel used in the robbery, but local police departments have recovered a fair number of these plastic look-alikes.

"You'd have to be crazy to rob someone with a pellet gun," says a vendor selling orange-tipped airsoft guns who declines to give his name. "But there are a lot of crazy people around."

Kids and adults stop by to see the guns, nestled in white Styrofoam molds, everything from little handguns to assault rifles. A mother comments on how real they look.

The imitation guns for sale here are "a matter of concern," says Christine Pritchard, a spokeswoman for New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. New York state law, since 1989, has prohibited the sale of real-looking imitation guns without an orange stripe that runs the entire length of the barrel.

"Realistic toy guns put in jeopardy the lives of New Yorkers, especially children and law enforcement personnel," says Pritchard. "It's a matter we take quite seriously and would want to look into."

Possession and sale of imitation guns is legal everywhere in New York state except New York City and, recently, Rockland County. The county passed a law in January that makes the sale or possession of an imitation gun a civil penalty.

"If it stops one person from using a non-firearm, it's a plus," says Lt. Anthony Costa of the Rockland County Sheriff's Department. The sheriff's department supported the legislation, says Costa, an NRA member. But its limits are clear to him.

"Is it a complete answer? I'd have to tell you 'No.'"

There is a belief among some that the criminal charges would be significantly less for using a fake gun in a robbery. It's not a real gun so it's no big deal, right?

That is mostly fiction.

First-degree robbery can be reduced to second-degree robbery if it's proven a fake gun was used. It still "appears" to be a real gun. Still a felony. Still punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Police found an imitation gun last November when they arrested Matthew Pickett, the 19-year-old accused of six armed robberies in the Middletown area.

It's black plastic with a fake-wood handle; the orange tip is snapped off. Michael Brownstein, Middletown police ID officer, calls it "junky."

But it worked.

Brownstein has a BB gun that cops took off a guy during a traffic stop. It's black, heavy, cocks like a real pistol. It's a Walther replica, the same type Peel pointed at Viktor Gridin's face when he robbed the Hess gas station that morning in Walden.

"If they pulled this out on us - on a cop," he says, "they would be shot."

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