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To stem fatal encounters, leaders target BB guns

Toy guns such as these are hard to distinguish from the real thing.
Toy guns such as these are hard to distinguish from the real thing.Boston Police Department/Handout

The 911 caller believed the gun was real. So did the police.

But the four boys at Sweeney Playground in South Boston who were playing with the BB gun designed to resemble a real Beretta PX4 Storm .40 caliber gun had no idea that police were on the way.

Even though the boys ran from officers who responded to the park, and one of them reached into his waistband for what officers had mistaken for a deadly weapon, the BB gun was recovered without incident. The boys were turned over to their guardians with only a stern reprimand.

But the encounter, which happened Tuesday night, could have gone very differently. It is the latest illustration of why Boston police — and now the city’s clergy — are mobilizing against toy guns that look real.

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“Thankfully, my officers showed tremendous restraint and because of that, we were able to turn what could have been a tragedy into a teaching moment,” Police Commissioner William B. Evans said Wednesday.

The issue is not limited to Boston. Last week, Brockton Police shot and killed 45-year-old Douglas Buckley after he allegedly pointed a BB gun at officers who were responding to a call from the man’s wife that he was threatening to burn the house down. Authorities said the rifle and handgun Buckley had “closely resembled authentic guns.”

Replicas are toy guns made to look like real firearms, but they cannot discharge projectiles. BB and pellet guns, which can also be made to look as realistic as possible, can discharge projectiles.

“You can’t tell the difference, basically,” Evans said in a recent interview. “Kids know they’re fake — we don’t. We’re trying our best to educate the public on the dangers of carrying the weapons around.”

The proliferation of phony firearms difficult to distinguish from real guns has made policing more difficult, Evans said. Pointing to the case of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Ohio, who was playing with a toy gun when he was shot to death by a police officer, Evans has called for the community’s help in getting the fake firearms off the street, saying that the possibility of a similar shooting here is “our worst nightmare.”

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About 250 replica, BB, and pellet guns were seized by Boston police last year, and so far this year 100 realistic-looking guns have been confiscated, Evans said.

Area clergy have decided to get involved in getting the fake weapons off the street, and will address the issue during Sunday services in coming weeks.

The Rev. Mark V. Scott, associate pastor at Azusa Christian Community in Dorchester, is one of several clergy members who are scheduled to hold a news conference Thursday to call on retailers and manufacturers to stop selling the toy guns.

They will also implore parents to ensure the fake firearms stay out of children’s hands.

“We’re saying no to BB guns in the community,” said Scott. “Parents are the key to being successful in this.”

Police seized these realistic looking toy guns in recent months.
Police seized these realistic looking toy guns in recent months. Boston Police Department/Handout

Following in the steps of Philadelphia, which prohibits all pellet and BB guns, Evans said he is pushing for local legislation that would ban the look-alike guns in public spaces.

Currently, state law prohibits minors from having an air rifle or BB gun in a public place unless accompanied by an adult or unless the minor has a sporting or hunting license and a permit from the chief of police. Evans wants to remove those exceptions and extend the ban to everyone in the city.

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Federal law requires that toy or imitation firearms be equipped with orange tips on the barrels, but those are often removed or painted over.

Evans said officers investigating crimes are encountering phony firearms that resemble AK-47s, revolvers, pistols, and other weapons. BB, replica, and pellet guns were recovered or used in at least 113 incidents between January 2014 and April 2015, including assault and battery, robbery, drug dealing, destruction of property, and breaking and entering, according to data provided by the police department.

Former New Bedford state representative John F. Quinn tried in vain in 2007 to establish a law that would make charges and punishments associated with using a fake gun in a crime the same as using a real firearm.

The bill was prompted by a New Bedford incident in which a man inside a drug house aimed a pellet gun at officers when they came into the home. The man was shot to death. The town’s city council initially called for a ban on all toy guns.

“Whether it is a BB gun, an air gun, or a real gun, it is a matter of intent,” said Quinn, who is now Director of Public Interest Law Programs at the University Of Massachusetts School Of Law at Dartmouth. “It should be treated as if someone pointed a shotgun at you. That would deter people from using” fake firearms.

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The phony guns have also been an issue for the city’s public schools.

During the 2014 school year, 15 replicas, BB, and pellet guns were confiscated by school officials and this year, 13 have been seized, said Boston Public Schools spokesman Richard Weir. BB guns are prohibited on school grounds.

In March, the Joseph Lee Elementary School in Dorchester was placed into “safe mode” after a student was caught with a black UKARMS airsoft BB gun. The student, who other students said was showing off the gun, was suspended, arrested, and charged with disturbing the peace and unlawful possession of a firearm.

And late last year, a student at the Curley School in Jamaica Plain was also suspended and sent to an intervention center after he boarded a school bus with a pellet gun, saying “if somebody messes with him today, they were going to die.”

Maria [Maki] Haberfeld, a professor of Police Science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City said law enforcement agencies could begin to combat the issue of fake guns by going into schools to explain to children and their parents the dangers of having a realistic toy gun.

“It’s incomprehensible how to determine the difference from a distance,” Haberfeld said.


Jan Ransom can be reached at jan.ransom@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Jan_Ransom.