Weapons that resemble deadly rifles — and have caused bystanders to frantically dial 911 or police officers to shoot those waving them — face zero state regulation in how they’re sold or used in Ohio.
BB guns and air rifles, which gun enthusiasts refer to as a potentially dangerous weapons, can be found stacked on shelves like golf balls in sporting good stores or milk in superstores. Usually, the weapons are disguised in cardboard with plastic wrap and security wiring around the box.
But on Aug. 5, a MK-177 Crosman pellet gun, which had sat unpacked at a Walmart in Beavercreek for at least three days, was finally picked up by John Crawford III, a 22-year-old from Fairfield.
As Crawford suspended the gun from his arm and paced around the store’s aisle, customer Ronald Ritchie dialed 911 to report Crawford’s movements. Beavercreek police officers arrived to the scene and ordered Crawford to put down the gun. Moments later Crawford, who was still holding the pellet gun in one hand and talking on a cell phone in the other hand, fell to the ground after being shot by police officer Sean Williams. Williams had feared the gun was real; Crawford died later that night from his injuries.
The scene was certainly uncommon, but it’s not an unheard-of scenario.
“There’s always been an issue with fake weapons,” Bruce Myers, a retired law enforcement officer who now teaches police academy courses for Columbus State Community College. “My philosophy is, if you don’t know (if the weapon is real), you have to operate under the assumption that it is real. I think that’s fairly consistent with what others do as well. You can’t take that chance.”
A mistake that costs a life
Few research or track the confusion BB guns or air rifles cause for law enforcement agencies. But, consequences exist.
A 1990 report commissioned by U.S. Congress found 186 police departments recalled a total of 1,128 incidents where an officer had to threaten use of force in a case where a toy or pneumatic gun was used by a suspect. In another 252 incidents, officers actually used force to quell a suspect mistakenly believed to wielding a real gun.
“This is something that actually happens quite a bit, when BB guns and air guns look so real,” said Mike McLively, an attorney for the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which monitors gun laws nationwide and advocates for safer gun laws. “You can see the conundrum police are in … They end up making a mistake that costs someone their life.”
Despite the danger, Ohio, along with 25 other states, has no laws that regulate air rifles or BB guns. The federal government doesn’t monitor the use of such weapons, either.
Still, other states have laws aimed at curbing BB gun or air rifle panic.
Earlier this month, California passed a law requiring air rifles, pellet and BB guns sold in the state be marked with brightly colored paint starting next year. The legislation came just months after a deputy shot a 13-year-old California boy, who was walking home with a pellet gun in hand, eight times and killed the eighth-grade student. The deputy said he thought the boy’s gun was real.
New Jersey law also requires air rifles and BB guns to be sold like real guns, while Minnesota law imposes penalties against anyone who carries such an item in public or brandishes the weapon.
Federal regulations require airsoft guns — which are different from air rifles — to be sold with an orange tip to avoid confusion with real guns; that rule doesn’t apply to BB or pellet guns.
Airsoft guns are known for looking “one-to-one” with real guns, said John Russ, the manager at 321 Airsoft LLC, an airsoft gun store in Milford, Ohio. But in recent years, some air rifles and BB guns have also begun to look more identical to real guns, Russ said. The similarities, he added, drive up sales.
“You get the oohs and ahhs,” Russ said of the increasingly realistic look of BB guns. “Crosman has really upped their game with what the BB guns look like.”
In fact, a review from a shopper on Amazon.com of the MK-177 Crosman air rifle, the one Crawford was holding when he was gunned down in Walmart, describes the item as “one of the few realistic military rifles available” on the market.
Crosman did not return requests for comment.
Gun experts say those similarities have advantages for teaching people how to handle real guns.
“They’re designed to be the same style as a lot of other sporting rifles,” said Joe Eaton, a spokesman for the Buckeye Firearms Association. It’s a good trade-off, having those same features that people may use for practice.”
And, critics say laws that distinguish the products from the real thing are no smoking gun, either. Opponents of the brightly colored air and BB gun legislation, argue criminals could use the law for their advantage and paint real guns to look fake.
Still, Ohio Rep. Rick Perales (R-Beavercreek) said he wants to look at ideas that could one day prevent a tragedy like the one that struck his hometown.
“Any way that we can help emergency responders to readily discern a toy versus a weapon, should be something we are looking into,” Perales told this newspaper Monday.
Crawford’s family members haven’t decided if they will take legal action against the Walmart, the Beavercreek police department or Crosman, the air rifle manufacturer.
Family members of Crawford have not ruled out filing civil lawsuits against Crosman, the air rifle manufacturer, Walmart or the Beavercreek police department, Michael Wright, the attorney representing the family, said.
“I don’t know what reason a manufacturer would have for making a BB gun a replica of an assault rifle,” Wright said. “If these BB gun were indistinguishable from real fire arms, they should be treated like real firearms. They should be locked up in the cabinets for storage.”
Walmart did voluntarily decide to store air rifles in a backroom and keep them off the shelves at the Beavercreek store where Crawford was shot, a spokesman confirmed. Customers must ask a store worker to retrieve the merchandise for them before buying it.
But for all of the retail giant’s other stores, the way air rifles or BB guns are packaged, displayed and sold is dependent on the state’s legislation, a spokesman for Walmart said.
“The actual sale and placement of guns are dictated by the laws that can vary state by state,” Brian Nick, a spokeswoman for the company, said. “Each store sells in accordance with the state law.”
Air rifles and BB guns still sit on shelves at Ohio’s other Walmart stores. This newspaper surveyed two Walmart locations Monday — one in the city of Middletown and one in Harrison Township — and both had air rifles that had been opened from security packaging.
Several sporting goods stores, including Dick’s, Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops did not respond to requests for comment regarding their policy for selling such items.
A scan of the Dick’s Sporting Goods store in Fairfield Twp. found the store does stock air rifles on the shelves, but none were unpacked and the items were near the hunting section of the store, which was monitored closely by a staff member.
How stores package and sell the merchandise should be left up to the private sector, said Rep. Wes Retherford (R-Hamilton). He, along with several other state legislators representing Butler County contacted for this story described the Beavercreek Walmart incident an “isolated” one.
“If we’re going to start locking everything up that poses a potential risk, that would be a lot more items locked up than just a BB gun,” Retherford said. “Eventually, you’re going to be locking up everything in the store.”
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