A month after sheriff deputies shot and killed thirteen year old, Andy Lopez who was carrying an air soft gun, state lawmakers plan on introducing a bill known as the Imitation Firearms Safety Act. The bill would require toy guns to be painted in bright colors to assist law enforcement from distinguishing deadly firearms.
According to 1990 Justice Department report, police departments around the country reported 1,128 incidents between January 1985 and Septermber 1989 where an officer warned or threatened to use force, and 252 cases where actual force was used on the officer’s belief that an imitation gun was real.
On October 22, the boy was returning the gun to his friend when two sheriff’s deputies spotted him. “One of the deputies immediately recognized that the subject was carrying what appeared to be an assault-style rifle, similar to an AK 47 assault rifle,” The police news release said. According to the police timeline, the officers alerted dispatch to a “suspicions person” at just after 3:14 p.m. Only 10 seconds later, they reported shots had been fired. It is still unclear what happened during those critical moments. Police said the deputies exited their vehicle which was behind Lopez, and one of them shouted at Lopez to “put the gun down.” As the boy turned toward Gelhaus, “the barrel of the assault rifle was rising up and turning in his direction.” Fearing Lopez was going to shoot, Gelhaus “fired several rounds from his service weapon at the subject, striking him at least one time.
The death of Andy Lopez, might have been prevented if deputies could have determined the gun was not a real assault weapon, lawmakers said. The shooting, by a veteran deputy and firearms instructor, has sparked almost daily protests in California, and the FBI has launched an independent investigation.
The boy’s family filed a civil rights lawsuit against Erick Gelhaus, 48, the Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy who shot Andy. The lawsuit, which also names the county as a defendant, seeks unspecified damages and alleges the deputy violated the teen’s civil rights.
“When officers must make split-second decisions on whether or not to use deadly force, these replica firearms can trigger tragic consequences,” said Senator Kevin de Leon (District – Los Angeles). “By making toy guns more obvious to law enforcement we can help families avoid the terrible grief of losing a child.”
De Leon plans to reintroduce a measure he wrote in 2011 that would have required BB guns to be painted a bright color.The bill was requested by Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie in response to an incident in which thirteen year old Rohayent Gomez was shot and left a paraplegic when police mistook his replica firearm for a real weapon. That bill failed passage in an Assembly committee.
“The reality is that there are many Andy Lopezes, not just throughout the state but throughout the entire nation,” de Leon said. “What happened in Santa Rosa on October 22 I believe was a watershed moment for the whole country.”
De Leon’s earlier bill drew criticism from manufacturers and users of air guns and BB guns. Placing further restrictions on toy guns argue (a) criminals could start painting their illegal firearms in bright colors to confuse police officers and (b) the more colorful toy guns are, the less they appeal to consumers. De Leon says that this time public opinion is on his side, with the death of Andy Lopez so fresh in people’s minds.
The new bill will be jointly offered by Senator Noreen Evans (District- Santa Rosa) and Democratic Assembly members Wesley Chesbro of Arcata, Marc Levine of San Rafael and Mariko Yamada of Davis.
“Currently these copycat toys are manufactured to be virtually indistinguishable from real firearms,” Evans said. “Because the use of lethal force against a person carrying an imitation firearm is a significant threat to public safety, toys must look like toys and not lethal weapons.”