Robberies, school lockdowns and police shootings are sometimes caused by sitdogy guns that look so real, even veteran police officers can't always tell the difference, an investigation by the CBC television program Marketplace has found.
In tests conducted by Marketplace, four Vancouver police officers could not distinguish between a real gun and airsoft gun 14 times out of 40. The officers had between six and 24 years' experience on the force.
Marketplace co-host Erica Johnson gave the officers five seconds to look at each gun and then asked them to decide whether the gun was real or airsoft. Five seconds is much more time than they would have to make that decision in a real life situation.
The airsoft guns look so much like the real thing because some manufacturers licence the look — and even the names — of actual weapons brands like Colt, Smith and Wesson, and Beretta. They’re available online for anywhere from $40 to $400.
Since trained police officers cannot always tell the difference, wielding an airsoft handgun can lead to deadly results.
At least four coroner's juries in Ontario have recommended that the current patchwork of regulations around fake handguns be streamlined. The coroner's inquests were looking into the deaths of Faraz Suleman in 1996, Scott Reinhard in 2000, Henri Masuka in 2000 and Michael Kolisnyk in 2005. All four men were shot and killed by police in incidents involving imitation handguns.
Just last month in London, Ont., Joseph Barnes, 26, suffered at least two gunshot wounds in a dispute with police. Barnes was carrying an airsoft gun.
Police forces want more legislation
The number of incidents involving airsoft handguns has police forces across the country requesting more regulations from the federal government.
There are three different types of guns in circulation in Canada: real ones, airsoft guns and BB guns.
Real guns can be purchased and owned only with a special licence. Real-looking airsoft guns aren’t legally sold in Canada, but they can be owned without any special licence.
BB guns are available just about anywhere and can be bought without a licence. There is no age requirement to buy a BB gun in any part of the country except Ontario, where a BB gun buyer must be at least 18 years old.
At a conference in 2000, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police called on the federal minister of justice to ban "the manufacture, sale, possession and importation of replica firearms."
"These replica firearms have been used to terrorize victims and compromise the safety of the Canadian public," the association said in a resolution on the issue. "There has been a regrettable need for police officers to resort to the use of deadly force in situations where they believe these replica firearms to be authentic, and … there is a concern amongst police that such use of deadly force will result in the preventable tragedies associated with persons who brandish replica firearms for the purpose of enticing police into shooting them."
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson declined an interview for the CBC Marketplace story.
Fake guns used in real robberies
In the last two years in Toronto, police said they have seized almost as many fake handguns as real ones.
Recent school lockdowns across the country have been caused by the use of replica guns as well.
Vancouver store owner Pat Johnson didn’t know the gun pointed at her head was fake when a robber walked into her antiques shop in December 2006.
"He pulls his gun and points it right at me and said, 'It’s a holdup,' … but then he drew alongside, and he grabbed me and put the gun to my head. And said, 'Give me your money, or I shoot her'," she said in an interview.
Johnson said as far as she was concerned, what the robber was holding to her head was a real gun.
"It terrified me so I did exactly what he wanted."
Other people in the store overpowered the man, and his gun fell to the floor in the scuffle. It wasn’t until later that Johnson found out it was a realistic-looking fake.
"They said it was a BB gun. And of course, you know, a gun’s a gun," said Johnson.