To victims, toy guns seem all too real

The News TribuneAugust 14, 2013 

Removing the orange tip and painting this toy gun black would make it appear to be a real gun.

EMILY MICHOT/MIAMI HERALD

Can a toy gun be a weapon?

Ask the person being threatened by it – the person who doesn’t know it’s a toy or replica. That person’s trauma is likely to feel very real even if the “gun” isn’t.

State law seems to acknowledge that distinction in RCW 9.41.270: “It shall be unlawful for any person to carry, exhibit, display, or draw any firearm, dagger, sword, knife or other cutting or stabbing instrument, club, or any other weapon apparently capable of producing bodily harm . . . (with) an intent to intimidate another or that warrants alarm for the safety of other persons.”

The “apparently” in the wording suggests that the weapon doesn’t have to be a real one, merely one that seems capable of “producing bodily harm” and “warrants alarm.” But a Lakewood municipal court judge gave more weight to the word “weapon” and dismissed a recent case against a woman who brandished a realistic-looking toy gun in a way that made her roommates feel threatened.

The judge ruled that since the toy gun wasn’t an actual weapon, the city’s weapons charge against the woman wasn’t valid.

Those on the other end of a phony-gun-that-looks-real might take issue with that interpretation, but it does draw attention to the need to fine-tune the language. There’s no move at the state level to address the wording, but Lakewood is looking at enacting its own ordinance to criminalize using a toy gun in a threatening manner.

That makes sense. Many fake guns look very real. Although some include an orange tip and markings to make it more obvious that they aren’t real, it’s not that hard to get rid of the tip and paint over the markings – which is what the defendant in the Lakewood case reportedly had done. Suddenly that toy looks a whole lot like the real thing – which is why some cities – including New York City and Chicago – do not allow the sale of any realistic-looking toy guns.

Lakewood’s City Council wants the Public Safety Advisory Board to study the proposed ordinance and report back. That’s a good idea; some of the original language seemed too broad. In the end, Lakewood should toughen the law to address realistic-looking toys.

Clearly, a toy gun can have the same result – to a point – as a real gun. It can create fear and be used to coerce people to do something they might otherwise not do.

For instance, Joshua Nitschke used a toy gun in 2011 to rob more than two dozen eateries, convenience stores and gas stations in Pierce County. How successful would he have been had the clerks not believed him to be armed? He was sentenced in October to more than 14 years in prison. At his sentencing, Judge Vicki Hogan noted: “You put a lot of people in fear. You had a minimum of 30 victims.”

A person who commits a robbery with a toy gun would be prosecuted for armed robbery, not play-acting robbery. By the same logic, threats made with realistic-looking toys should be taken just as seriously as those made with the real thing.

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