Should government mandate painting toy guns differently?

Questions of government restrictions on the manufacture and design of toy guns are once again in the headlines after another tragic shooting of a 12 year old boy in Cleveland, Ohio by police. On the surface, this incident is far too similar to others we’ve seen in the past. The boy had a BB pistol, an alarmed resident called the police, and when they showed up the kid wound up getting shot. The story has a couple of twists, however. One is the report that when police ordered him to put his hands up, the boy instead lifted his shirt and reached to pull the BB gun out of his waistband, leading to the lethal force response.

The second issue, however, comes with the appearance of the BB gun itself. It originally came with a bright orange stripe identifying it as not being an actual handgun, but someone – it is unclear who at this point – removed the protective feature, leaving it looking like a real weapon. (Just to forestall the inevitable comments, yes… a BB gun is a weapon also, but I’m drawing a distinction here between an air or spring charged device and an actual handgun capable of firing conventional bullets. I also refer to it as a “toy” here, but only to draw the same distinction.) This has prompted one Ohio lawmaker to rush forward a bill mandating that all such toys be more clearly painted and identified in a way which leaves no room for confusion.

The problem with this is that manufacturers already do this nearly universally. You can look at the line of Airsoft toy guns and see that this is standard practice. Also, it’s surprisingly easy to modify them. Some years ago when I was taking film making classes (as a hobby) we bought some of those to use for short films. There are countless tutorials and videos out there, some even done by children, on how to make the modifications cheaply and quickly.

Complicating the question from the other side of the issue is a point raised by one police union spokesperson who asked whether or not such practices would make it easier for criminals to disguise actual guns as toys. That sort of maneuver could cast a moment of doubt in a police officer’s mind before drawing their weapons, giving potential cop killers an advantage.

This is a very complex question. On the surface, I really don’t see a problem in terms of either second amendment rights (obviously) or overt government regulation in mandating the painting of toys. But on the other hand, it’s unclear how much it accomplishes. I suppose if it saves any lives at all it’s a net plus, but the plan hardly seems foolproof at first glance.

In the end, maybe the cold-hearted sounding answer comes back to what it always does… personal responsibility. If police are called to the scene on a report of a possible suspect with a weapon and you pull out something that looks passably like a gun, you’re probably going to be shot. If you are a parent and don’t instruct your child about this, you bear some of the responsibility. If you are an adult and you whip out a solid black Airsoft toy handgun in front of the cops, you’ve pretty much extended the invitation for them to ensure you have a very bad day. The government’s ability to protect citizens from doing stupid things has historically been quite limited.