The fatal police shooting of a 12-year-old boy reportedly while he reached for an airsoft gun in a Cleveland playground has led to renewed calls for replica and air rifles to be clearly identifiable as such — a move doggedly resisted by the National Rifle Association (NRA), who have helped scuttled such moves in the past.
An Ohio state representative announced on Sunday she would propose legislation that would require all BB guns, air rifles and airsoft guns to be brightly colored or have prominent fluorescent strips.
“This bill is but one small step in addressing this tragedy and helping to prevent future deadly confrontations with someone who clearly presents little to no immediate threat or danger,” Rep. Alicia Reece said in a statement Sunday.
But the measure will likely face stiff opposition from the NRA, which has lobbied against similar measures to regulate air guns elsewhere and encouraged legislation to reduce restrictions on these weapons, which fire small projectiles using compressed air.
Federal statutes currently mandate that air guns have an orange plug inserted in the gun’s barrel, but such markings can be easily painted over or removed.
Tamir Rice, the boy who died a day after being shot Saturday in the stomach by a police officer, had an air gun with its orange tip apparently taken off.
State laws on air guns run the gamut in terms of regulation, from non-existent to the same as that used for regular firearms that fire deadly bullets. In Ohio, where Tamir was killed, it was the former.
“Restricting child access is extremely important,” to preventing child gun deaths, said Lindsey Zwicker, staff attorney with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. At least 12 states and the District of Columbia have state laws regulating air guns, but most states have no age limits for purchase.
“This really is a part of a bigger issue regarding children’s access to firearms. These are dangerous. They can cause serious injury and, in some ways, it just normalizes guns and what children are allowed to play with,” Zwicker added.
New Jersey and Rhode Island, densely populated states with relatively strict gun laws, treat air guns the same as regular firearms, Zwicker said.
Under federal law, an outright ban by a state is illegal, she added, but states can still regulate their sale.
“States with tougher child access laws have lower incidents of accidental shootings in the home,” Zwicker said. She says she believes the same would apply to accidents involving air guns.
The inspiration for Reece’s law wasn’t just Rice’s death. In August, police shot and killed a 22-year-old black man, John Crawford III, who was standing in an Ohio Walmart holding an airsoft gun for sale at the store. Nervous shoppers called the police, who arrived in force and killed the young man. A grand jury decided not to indict the officers who pulled the trigger.
Reece, the head of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus, nicknamed the bill “John Crawford’s Law.”
But under pressure from NRA lobbying, some states are looking at relaxing laws on airsoft guns.
In Michigan, the pro-gun lobbying group has thrown its weight behind a measure to remove rules applying to the sale or transfer of air guns. It passed unanimously in Michigan’s Republican-controlled Senate and overwhelmingly in the House, where it now sits in committee.
The NRA-supported legislation removes regulations on the transfer or sale of air guns and prevents legal restrictions on private property as long as “the possessor takes precautionary measures to ensure the projectile remains within the bounds of the property.”
In California, the NRA opposes a law similar to the one Ohio Rep. Reece has proposed. The legislation — SB 199, which is still pending passage — came after a Northern California sheriff shot and killed a 13-year-old child, Andy Lopez, who was holding a rifle that looked like an AK-47.
The NRA argues that children won’t pay brightly colored air guns the same respect as ones that look like real guns, potentially causing children to harm themselves accidentally.
Toby Hoover, founder of the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence, blames the NRA for undermining efforts to reduce the risk of these accidental shootings.
“We need a real education of people to realize if they’re carrying something that even looks like a weapon, they’re going to be assumed to have a weapon,” she said.
“The NRA has to stop opposing all safety regulations that could protect our kids from this violence,” Hoover said. “They need to join the rest of the country that want to save kids lives. It is all of our responsibilities.”
The NRA did not respond to a request for comment from Al Jazeera.
Hoover said that it’s not Rice’s fault he got shot. It’s the responsibility of the adults who allowed him access to the realistic-looking replica and of the police who reacted with deadly force.
“We have to remember this was a child,” she said.