A sheriff’s deputy in a department store parking lot looks over to see a boy in the next car brandishing an assault rifle.
Rob Averbeck did recently. The Winona County investigator noticed the orange tip on the barrel, which assured him the otherwise authentic-looking gun was an air-powered toy.
From handguns to assault rifles, air-powered toy and pellet guns that look like the real thing have some police officers on edge.
Federal law requires toy guns to have an orange plastic tip, but the tips are easily removed or blackened.
The popular replica guns have resulted in tragedies: Police in Florida last year shot and killed a boy who brandished a toy 9-mm look-alike; Chicago police shot and wounded a 14-year-old with a BB gun.
In Winona, criminals have also used them effectively in robberies and assaults.
Law enforcement officials say they don’t always have time to distinguish the replicas from the real weapons.
“It looks real, and if I stop somebody at midnight I don’t know it’s not real. I’ve got to watch out for myself at the end of the day, and there are plenty of incidents where they are real,” said Winona County Chief Deputy Ron Ganrude. “We don’t have the luxury of seeing the orange and thinking it’s no big deal. We have to be on guard all the time.“
Both Winona police and the sheriff’s office have confiscated look-alike pellet guns over the past year. These air guns that shoot pellets or BBs can be powered by springs, carbon dioxide gas canisters or batteries and cost as little as $10.
Some shoot plastic pellets and are used to play a war game called Airsoft, like paint-ball without the mess.
After the Consumer Product Safety Commission called for toy manufacturers to stop selling real-looking toy guns in 1994, several major retailers pulled them from their shelves.
In February, Gander Mountain stopped selling replica guns in Minnesota and has plans to phase them out nationwide.
Minnesota law prohibits fake guns on school grounds, and in February St. Paul adopted an ordinance designed to curb the public use of them. Chicago has banned BB and pellet guns.
Winona has an ordinance against the use of replica guns in city parks or on city property, but Winona County Sheriff Dave Brand said they should also be carried in a case or in a car trunk when they are transported.
Winona Middle School Principle Sharon Suchla said five years ago a student brought a red plastic gun to the school, but they’ve had no incidents since.
“It’s cyclical,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a current fad ... but I do hear about them playing with the soft pellet things on the weekends.“
Winona Police Sgt. Chris Nelson remembers playing with toy guns as a kid, but his son’s pellet gun is hard to distinguish at first glance from the gun he carries for work.
“It’s becoming more and more real. It’s one of those threats you have to be aware of and it’s one of those decisions you have to make in a half second,” Nelson said. “You just hope you don’t have to look back at that decision made in half a second for days after.“