Question of the Week

June 9, 2009


For many, when it comes to toy guns, the thought is that "it's just a toy." Others take toy guns, and the issues that surround them, much more seriously.

"The latest case of zero-tolerance at the public schools has a 10-year-old student sadder and wiser, and facing expulsion and long-term juvenile detention. ... 'I think I shouldn't have brought a gun to school in the first place,' said the student, Alandis Ford ... Alandis' gun was a 'cap gun,' a toy cowboy six-shooter that his mother bought for him. ... 'That's what he wanted because it was just like the ones he was studying for the Civil War' in his fifth-grade class at Fairview Elementary School. ... Alandis was charged with possessing a weapon on school property and with terroristic acts and threats. 'On the school bus,' on Tuesday, Alandis said, 'when I dug into my bookbag trying to get my phone out, the boy beside me, he reached in my bookbag and got it [the toy gun] and started telling everybody, "He's got a gun, he's got a gun," and spread it around the whole bus. So I put it back in my bookbag.' But he said the students kept shouting, 'He's going to shoot all y'all, he's got a gun, he's going to bring it to school and shoot all y'all.'"

The boy had what he knew to be a harmless toy, but in the eyes of others, it could be a dangerous weapon. The actual toy gun was only part of the story; how that gun was interpreted in the eyes of others was as much, if not more, of an issue.

"A 12-year-old boy reaching for his gun in Penn Park stopped doing so when ordered to by a police officer who drew his weapon on him, a fortunate move since the officer could not know that the long, semi-automatic gun the boy had in his pants was a BB gun, Madison police reported. ... Upon arrival, officers approached the 12-year-old. 'He began grabbing at the front of his pants,' said Madison police spokesman Joel DeSpain. 'An officer pointed his service weapon at the boy and ordered him to show his hands and to stop moving.' ... The 12-year-old told police, after being taken to the south district station, that when he first saw the officers approach in the park, he didn't know what to do so he reached for his gun. Not a good choice. 'Reaching for a gun, when officers don't know if it's real or not, could result in a lethal response by law enforcement,' DeSpain said. The 12-year-old was cited for unlawful use of a facsimile firearm."

There are guns that are perceived as a threat because of their appearance, and then there are guns that are perceived as a threat because they emulate the unnerving sound of a real gun. Sometimes the misunderstanding is caught in time. Unfortunately, sometimes it is not.

"In a cramped Bushwick apartment, with a domestic dispute unfolding, Housing Police Officer Hector Rivera heard the click behind his head and was sure a 9-millimeter gun had been cocked. He spun, his right hand reaching for his holster. What he saw was a child emerging from a bedroom with a toy gun. 'Toy guns can even sound like real guns,' Officer Rivera said. No one was hurt that day last year, unlike Tuesday night when a 13- year-old boy carrying a toy rifle was shot and killed by a housing police officer who apparently thought he saw a real gun. The episode, and the wounding of another Brooklyn teenager who police said was carrying a toy pistol, were among the most dramatic recent tolls exacted by the problem of toy guns that not only look real but often are used to commit real crimes in a violent city. ... Later Tuesday night, another Brooklyn youth, Jamiel Johnson, 16, was shot by a plainclothes New York City police officer after the police said he took a replica 9-millimeter gun from his waistband."

It's not just how a toy gun looks or sounds, misunderstandings also arise from how it is used.

"A 15-year-old boy who pointed what turned out to be a toy gun at US police officers has been shot and injured north of Los Angeles, officials say. The boy was shot on Sunday night in Palmdale, about 80km (50 miles) from Los Angeles. He is said to stable. Officers were responding to reports that someone on a bicycle was brandishing a handgun, officers said. Police ordered him to drop the weapon but instead he aimed it at them, Deputy Jeff Gordon told reporters. One of the officers fired a shot and hit the boy in the upper body. 'Later on, they determined it was a juvenile playing cops and robbers,' Deputy Ed Hernandez, a sheriff's spokesman said. The toy handgun looked like a black semi-automatic pistol and lacked the orange tip found on most toys to distinguish them from real weapons, Deputy Gordon told the Associated Press."

There are toy guns that look like real guns but are incapable of shooting someone; they can only cause harm if they are used in a threatening or potentially misunderstood manner. Then there are guns that are often considered toys, but really aren't and can actually be dangerous if not treated and respected just as one should behave with any other real gun.

"BB guns are not toys and it is very easy to injure or even kill. Here are some important BB gun safety rules:

  • Treat all guns as though they are loaded
  • Never point your BB gun at anyone
  • Check out local and federal laws and regulations
  • Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to fire
  • Do not fire the gun unless you know everything around the target
  • BBs can ricochet. Be aware of the type of surface at which you are shooting. BBs can ricochet off of flat surfaces, hard surfaces and water.
  • Do not allow minors to shoot any type of gun without direct adult supervision.
  • Take a gun safety class."

Whatever the type of gun (whether it be a toy, or something that shoots potentially dangerous projectiles), it is important to consider: there is the actual threat of the weapon, but then there is also the threat of misunderstandings surrounding the weapon that could lead to further injury or death.

Just as toy guns can be mistaken for real ones, real guns can be mistaken for toys--and then not treated with the appropriate care and respect. Children (in addition to teens and adults) need to know what to do if they encounter someone playing with a gun.

"With the recent shooting of a young child, surgeons from Lee Memorial Trauma Center want to remind parents about gun safety. Between April 2008 and April 2009, the trauma team has treated 16 gunshot injuries of children between the ages of 2 and 18. With school coming to a close for the summer break, children will be at home and going over to friends' homes. According to federal statistics, there are guns in approximately half of all households. Even if you do not own a gun, it is possible that your child will come into contact with a gun at a neighbor's house, when playing with friends, or under other circumstances outside your home. ... Teach children if they find a gun: stop, don't touch, leave the area, and tell an adult."

Questions of the Week:
What should children, teens, and adults know about the potential dangers associated with toy guns? What would be the best way to teach young children about what to do if they see a gun and are not sure if it is real or a toy? How might this differ for (or be similar to) what teens and/ or adults should do in the same situation? What should people (of all ages) know about gun safety (with regards all types of guns, including BB guns)?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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