The Fatal Mistake: When Deciding Whether a Gun Is Real or Fake Goes Wrong

Twelve year old Tamir Rice was in a local park in Cleveland playing with a borrowed pellet gun that shoots plastic pellets. Unsure if the gun was real or not, a concerned citizen called 911 to report it.

Officer Timothy Loehmann and his training partner, Frank Garmback, responded to the call about a man waving a gun. Within seconds of officers arriving, Tamir was shot to death by Officer Loehmann, who mistook the fake gun for a real gun.

The Grand Jury declined to indict the officers. Experts outside of the Cleveland police department examined the evidence, including the video, and both determined the shooting was reasonable, stating that the split second decision was made by the officer who was within feet of Tamir Rice and had no cover to protect himself.

While this article is not intended to examine the merits of the Tamir Rice case, this recent tragedy does provide an opportunity to learn from the events, as it relates to a law enforcement officer’s job of determining whether a weapon is fake or real before using lethal force.

Research conducted for the Police Executive Research Forum provides an in-depth analysis of police encounters with fake guns. The research was mandated as part of the law requiring distinct markings on fake guns to distinguish them from real guns.

The research showed that between January 1, 1985 and September 1, 1989, there were 252 cases where officers used force based on the belief that a gun was real. In the cases where officers did use force, no charges were sought due to the reasonable belief the gun was real.

Airsoft GunDuring this same time period, fake guns were also used in 5,654 robberies, indicating that the victims in the robberies also believed the guns were real- or likely to be real.

The report states that in every case where deadly force was used, the actions of the suspect triggered the officer to use deadly force. Sometimes, the person’s startled response to the officer’s presence created a reaction the officer believed was threatening, as was possible in the case of Tamir Rice. Other times, the person intentionally acted threatening to provoke the officer into shooting.

The fake gun Tamir Rice possessed was missing an orange tip that is designed specifically to avoid this type of incident. Would it have mattered if it had one? In split second decisions, officers may not notice an orange tip, and in low light situations, even with an orange tip, fake guns look real.

Police are trained to assume that all guns are real, and for good reason. Trusting a weapon merely due to an orange painted front can be deadly. It is not uncommon for front sites to be painted orange/red colors by users and manufacturers to aid in sighting the weapon.  If an officer depended on this to determine whether or not to use force, he or she may end up a shooting victim.

If a gun looks like a gun, regardless of color, it must be assumed to be a gun. Guns are sold in a plethora of colors, from aqua to pink. Color is meaningless.

Anyone with a gun is potentially deadly. Failing to take action because the person holding a gun looks like a teenager can also cost an officer his or her life.

It would be nice if there were an easy answer to the problem of determining if a gun is real or fake. There isn’t. As long as manufacturers are permitted to make fake guns that replicate real guns, and people buy those guns, shootings involving officers and fake guns will continue.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Laura Samples

Laura Samples

Laura Samples has over 18 years of law enforcement experience and currently serves as a police lieutenant in Texas. She is a graduate of the Leadership Command College from LEMIT at Sam Houston State University, a graduate of the Denver Paralegal Institute, and has earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice and a Master’s Degree in Human Resource Management, from Fort Hays State University.She is also a veteran of the U.S. Army where she served as a Military Police Officer in both Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
Laura Samples
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