The last thing St. Paul and its police officers need is a supply of realistic-looking toy guns. But last year, 125 of the 690 guns confiscated by police were replica or toy guns. Many of these are new-generation, BB-type guns known as 'airsoft'' guns. Too many of them are dead ringers for Glocks and Smith & Wessons and other real firearms.
If police can't immediately tell the difference, the toy could trigger a tragedy. St. Paul's plan to close a legal loophole and prohibit these replica weapons from being carried in public is an act of wisdom. What is also needed is a heavy dose of common sense. We should support our police by keeping these replicas out of any situation where they could cause trouble, and by making sure children do not carry them out of the home.
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and Council Member Lee Helgen unveiled an ordinance Monday that would prohibit the possession of these "non-lethal firearms'' in public places. They appeared at a news conference with 21 weapons lined up on a conference room table. Distinguishing the four that were real from the 17 that were toys was very difficult, even in a room with good lighting.
Imagine being the police officer who has to make that decision at night on a street corner or during a traffic stop. "There is no way to distinguish what's real from what's not real,'' said assistant police chief Thomas Smith.
According to Gabe Stitzel, president of the Minnesota Airsoft Association, the realism of the replicas is what attracts those who use the guns in paintball-type gaming. Stitzel supports the intent of the ordinance, saying, "People who are using these irresponsibly, getting airsoft replicas out of their hands is important.''
Coleman and Helgen said the prevalence of these guns has become a serious problem in the city, and they are being used to intimidate people and to commit crimes. While state law already allows prosecution for using a toy gun in the commission of a robbery or other crime, there is no prohibition against carrying this type of replica in public. The ordinance would make it a misdemeanor. Helgen said airsoft guns could still be transported to gaming events in safe containers.
Super-soaker aficionados need not panic. The ordinance would not cover replicas that are immediately recognizable as toys, including those painted in bright colors, those made of transparent materials and those with long blaze-orange extensions at the muzzle end.
We appreciate the announcement by St. Paul-based Gander Mountain Co. to pull real-looking replicas from its shelves and sell only airsoft guns that are "obviously and unmistakably toys.'' Coleman said he will be asking other city retailers to take the same step.
At a time when cities struggle with gun violence, particularly among teen-agers, young people should not be walking about with toys that look like the real thing. Adults have a role to play in making sure that no one in our care does this. It's common sense. And, soon in St. Paul, we hope, it will be the law.