Fake Guns … Real Problems

Over the last few years, underage youths have been increasingly caught carrying fake or replica firearms. Many of these can be made to look amazingly real by merely spraying the (government-mandated) orange barrel with some black paint. Not even a firearms expert could tell the difference at typical self-defense distances.

I once conducted an information-sharing seminar with a group of law enforcement personnel, both city police and county sheriffs. At one point, I showed them a perfect example of just how difficult it is to distinguish a toy from a real gun. And I do mean “toy” — I had a life-size, exactly to scale plastic replica of an Uzi 9mm submachine gun.

To make it even more convincing, I attached a sling with swivels, a red-dot scope and, to top it off, an actual Uzi steel 25-round magazine (I had to cut a hole in the grip to insert it). After removing the “gun” from a “tactical” case (carefully observing muzzle discipline, of course), I racked the “bolt” — which even sounded real — pretending to “clear” the gun for safety’s sake.

At this point, I pressed the trigger and the battery-powered “rat-a-tat-tat” sound came from the tiny speaker in the receiver. The room erupted in nervous laughter, which was soon followed by comments like, “Geez, you’re kiddin’ me!” and “Holy crap!”

It doesn’t take much thought to see how some foolish teenager, carrying one of these fake firearms, could wind up getting shot. No cop would doubt that what he/she was facing was a genuine threat. You and I would more than likely react the same way.

But there is also an even uglier flipside. Some hard-core gang members and drug dealers have begun taking REAL guns and spray painting the muzzles with bright orange (“Day-Glo”) paint. I’ve seen photos of whole banquet-sized tables strewn with such guns. Diabolical.

In an actual case relayed to me by one of my law enforcement friends, the officer who encountered one of these doctored guns admitted that seeing the orange-tipped gun caused him to hesitate for just a second. That was enough. The gang-banger fired first, hitting the cop in the leg and hand. The officer’s partner returned fire, killing the attacker.

True, cops will be far more likely to confront either of these scenarios than the average civilian, but it certainly could happen. However, while cops are given a great deal of leeway in the use of force, you and I will be scrutinized much more closely. And the unfortunate reality is that we could face either a real gun made to look fake, or a fake gun made to look real. Neither prospect is appetizing.

The problem with the fake gun is a psychological phenomenon called “the hindsight bias” — a jury always has knowledge that the defendant didn’t have. YOU had no idea the gun was fake, but they do. As lawyers often quip, “You can’t un-ring a bell.”

And it affects them emotionally. Jurors cannot help thinking that your assailant “couldn’t really have hurt anyone.” And it just feels “unfair” that an “unarmed” (usually young) person is dead.

Your attorney can only drive home the legal principle that jurors must ignore after-the-fact knowledge and focus only on whether it was reasonable for you to have believed the attacker had the ability to harm you severely.

Bottom line? Do what you must to protect yourself … but, as always, have a REALLY good lawyer.