Toy guns that resemble the real thing were at the heart of a tense encounter April 1.
By Sheila Hagar of the Union-Bulletin
``My main concern is, it's an accident waiting to happen.''
her son Tony was among three people detained by police while playing with toy guns.
It could have been taken from a cop reality show. Three males were on their knees with wavering hands held high in the air. A young man gave a frightened sob as flashlight beams sliced through the dark.
Behind the kneeling figures, a neatly manicured lawn in front of a family-sized porch added a touch of the surreal.
In fact, nothing was quite what it seemed at first glance.
On April 1, Walla Walla police officers responded to what a caller told them looked like an armed robbery of a neighborhood convenience store. When they arrived at about 10 p.m., it looked like the caller suspected - three figures were in the street, running, ducking behind trees, darting into car ports. All had hoods tied close around their faces and wore glasses or goggles.
All were carrying pistols in their hands.
At least, that's what officers assumed from what they saw.
It turned out the only lethal weapons that night were in the hands of law enforcement. The three men became one adult and two youths, ages 12 and 14.
And the armed robbery was actually a form of tag one night during Walla Walla's recent spring break.
The game was meant to chase away cabin fever, said Nathaniel Vickers, a Union-Bulletin employee.
Vickers, 43, was spending time with the two neighbor boys while his daughters were at a church youth dance, he said. Boredom had set in until he suggested going outside with the ``soft air'' guns belonging to one of the boys.
These air guns are increasingly popular for target practice and recreation, police say. The toy weapons shoot brightly colored and almost weightless plastic BBs, and are lumped in the same category as paint ball and pellet-style guns. By law, soft air guns must have red or orange tips.
``I made sure everyone had goggles or glasses on, because you don't want to get one of those plastic pellets in your eyes,'' Vickers said. He also advised the boys to snug their sweatshirt hoods down tight, to keep the eyewear in place and to protect their ears and skin.
He was under the impression toy gun play is legal, he said. ``I've seen so many kids under the age of 18 with them.''
It was when he laughingly shouted for the boys to stop - he'd dropped his ammunition - that Vickers slowed down long enough to notice the trio was no longer alone on Park Street. ``The next thing I knew, we were surrounded by the police and they told us to drop our weapons.''
It seemed to Vickers at the time as if he and the boys had assault weapons pointed at their heads, he recalled.
All three responded promptly, eager to demonstrate the guns were fake. ``I held it out like this,'' Vickers said, extending clasped fingers far from his body. ``I said, `Sir, it's a toy weapon.'''
Nonetheless, all were kept on their knees and searched while police kept their guns at ``low ready.''
``They were detained with weapons drawn,'' agreed Sgt. Michael Ralston of the Walla Walla Police Department. He noted it was two officers on the scene, while two others stayed in the distance. The weapons were the .40-caliber Glock handguns Walla Walla officers routinely carry.
The officers responded completely appropriately given the information they received of a potentially dangerous situation, Ralston said. The air guns were on the street in plain view at 10 p.m. next to the Alder Street Apex Food and Deli convenience store.
The tag players got the message, Vickers said. ``The police were determined to explain it was a serious situation.''
He added he didn't like the way the officers spoke to them. Nonetheless, his embarrassment at being on his knees in his neighborhood as a result of playing with a toy gun equaled his momentary anger, Vickers remembered.
The mother of one of the boys liked her son's involvement even less. Linda Coronado was asleep on her couch 20 feet from where her 12-year-old son, Tony Manns, was being searched. ``When they came in and told me, I thought it was an April Fools,'' she said.
It was Tony's 14-year-old friend Michael who brought the guns over, she said. Coronado is opposed to toy guns, and even keeps her son's cap pistol out of sight. ``My main concern is, it's an accident waiting to happen.''
Although no one was cited by police over the incident, her family is still affected by it. Tony, a sixth-grader at Pioneer Middle School, barely left the house for days following the scare and is undergoing counseling, his mom said. In the meantime, Coronado hopes to get the story out to other parents.
Tony, at 5-foot-9, and 179 pounds, was initially mistaken for an adult. ``If he had panicked and made a false move, he could be dead,'' Coronado believes. ``A child being exposed to that kind of violence could freak out.''
Airsoft brand and other toy guns are manufactured to look ``more and more like real guns. This is teaching kids how to load guns,'' she said, referring to the slip-in magazines. ``All it takes is a phone call to summon the police when a toy gun is being used.''
She concedes she is unhappy the guns are sold just across the street at Apex, although Michael's guns did not come from that business.
Apex owner Young Cho carries the Double Eagle M47B soft air shotgun, keeping it on a high shelf behind the register. While it weighs a mere three pounds, it sports a scope and a sleek, black body; the mandatory red tip is but a fraction of the body of the toy.
Cho, who has owned the store about 18 months, said he will not allow his children to play with soft air guns. But his business, which caters to neighborhood children and those at the nearby YMCA, has sold several. Buyers are asked for identification to ensure the 18-or-older requirement is upheld, he said.
Coronado said she has seen Apex employees demonstrating the gun to kids in the parking lot. As a mother and a nearby resident, she finds it disturbing. ``It's not a crime for an employee to take the guns out to the parking lot, but the franchise should know what the employee is doing.''
Written into Title 9 of the City of Walla Walla municipal code are several subsections regarding ``public peace, morals and welfare.'' Within those, clause 9.15 discusses firearms, missiles and air guns: discharging any type of air gun is prohibited anywhere at any time in Walla Walla, it states.
Which is fine with Coronado. Tony, who makes good grades and plays AAU basketball, has pestered his mother to buy a toy gun for him, he said.
She was reluctant prior to the April 1 incident, and she is more vehement now. ``I don't want Tony even playing with a gun...any kind of gun,'' Coronado responded.
She had already warned her son about potential dangers, telling him something could happen at any time with kids playing with the look-alike pistols.
``I knew her words would come true,'' Tony chimed in. ``They always do.''
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