Experts: Air guns are not ‘toys’

While killings are rare, observers say such devices are dangerous

How dangerous is the airsoft rifle that a Fairfield man was carrying Aug. 5 when he was killed during a police-involved shooting at a Pentagon Boulevard Walmart?

When police confronted John Crawford III, 22, he was carrying an air rifle, according to Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office. Last week, the office said Crawford held a Crosman MK-177 Tactical Air Rifle.

On Walmart.com, the product description says the Crosman can be used for target practice, pest control and “going after small game.”

It also says the device has technology making it “easier to fire BBs at speeds of up to 800 fps (feet per second).” It has rails for a flashlight and “a laser,” Walmart says.

“They’re clearly not toys,” said Bryan Ciyou, an Indianapolis attorney who has written seven books on state gun laws nationwide. “The typical Daisy Red Ryder which the (film) ‘A Christmas Story’ made famous, I’m unaware of anyone who has ever been killed with one of those.”

But he added, “Every year, there are a handful of individuals killed with pellet guns. It’s not unheard of to have that happen.”

“What’s the definition of a toy?” said Ken Hanson, legislative director with the Buckeye Firearms Association. “Would I give it to my kids and let them shoot at each other? No.”

But he added that he would not expect pellet and air guns, in most situations, to be capable of killing people.

“You would take a baseball and throw it at someone and do far more damage,” Hanson said.

“It’s just like a real gun — it’s how you handle it that determines whether it’s safe or unsafe,” said Guy Relford, a Carmel, Ind. attorney, firearms instructor and author of “Gun Safety and Cleaning for Dummies,” published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Telling the difference

A message seeking comment was left with Bloomfield, N.Y.-based Crosman Corp., manufacturer of the air rifle Crawford was holding when he was killed.

The nature of such devices and how they should be treated has been raised in the wake of Crawford’s shooting.

“If they’re selling the BB guns in Beavercreek, you would think the Beavercreek police department would be able to distinguish these BB guns from actual real firearms,” attorney Michael Wright, who is representing Crawford’s parents and family, said Monday. “And if they could not, they should have put in them in a case, in a locked case.”

Police said Crawford was shot after he did not drop the realistic-looking rifle when instructed to do so by Beavercreek police officers Sean Williams and Sgt. David Darkow.

DeWine’s office is conducting an independent, third-party investigation, which is expected to be lengthy — a matter of months instead of days or weeks.

The Montgomery County Coroner’s Office said it is listing Crawford’s manner of death as homicide, or death as caused by another person. He died of a gunshot to the torso. Crawford’s full autopsy will take several weeks to complete.

“It’s my understanding he (Crawford) never possessed or owned a firearm,” Wright said. “It’s a BB gun. It’s a toy. If it was a firearm, it should have been in a cabinet with the other firearms.”

Such devices can sometimes kill, if a scan of recent media reports is any indication.

Last November in Hamilton County, Indiana, a 19-year-old man was arrested and charged with reckless homicide, a Class C felony, after another man was shot with an air rifle. The victim, Jesus Martinez-Lopez, 45, died, reported the Indianapolis Star.

In June 2013, in Clinton County, Pa., a 15-year-old boy was killed after what appeared to be an accidental shooting with an air rifle, according to media reports.

Legitimate hunting weapon

Hanson said such devices are not true firearms. They don’t fire projectiles with a combustible propellant, he said. The Crosman uses compressed air.

“As far as killing human beings, no, I’ve not heard of that,” Hanson said. “If you shot someone perfectly, I guess, like through the eyeball where there’s nothing resisting, and it went up into the brain cavity, I suppose there’s the potential for that.”

Such rifles can kill rabbits and squirrels, though.

“They’re legitimate hunting guns for small game — very small game,” Hanson said. “We’re talking really nothing bigger than a rabbit.”

The lethality of any projectile is a function of kinetic energy, he said — the weight of the projectile multiplied by the velocity squared of the projectile delivered, as Hanson described the physics involved when a weapon fires.

The model Crawford was said to be carrying, a black MK-177 rifle, is fed by a five-shot pellet clip or an internal 300-plus BB magazine “conveniently located on the side,” Walmart’s description says.

“These guns, they would probably break the skin,” Hanson said. “They might just leave an angry welt.”

“The speed at which something is traveling (is crucial),” Ciyou said. “If you take a bullet and throw it at someone, it’s probably not going to hurt them.”

In the confrontation with Crawford, police officers were faced with someone holding what can be considered “an inherently dangerous” device, in the same category as a baseball bat or a screwdriver, Ciyou said.

“A BB gun or an air rifle could easily blind you,” he said. “Again, I would put it in the same category as a (baseball) bat or someone coming at you with a screwdriver.”

“They did what a prudent police officer would do,” Ciyou added.

Relford said he emphasizes to students that such devices should never be aimed or pointed at people, and they should be treated as firearms.

“We always say that all the same safety rules apply to a pellet gun, a BB gun, an air rifle,” Relford said.

The speeds at which these devices shoot projectiles vary dramatically, Relford said. Some shoot at up to 1,000 feet per second — faster than a .45 pistol he said he carries for protection every day.

Angela Williams, 37, a shopper in the Walmart store at the time of Crawford’s shooting, collapsed fleeing the scene and later died. Her funeral was Tuesday at Belton-Stroup Funeral Home in Fairborn.

Staff Writer Mark Gokavi contributed to this story.

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