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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, May 13, 2010

We have to worry about faux guns, too?

There's the gun culture and now there's apparently the lookalike gun culture, and pity the poor law enforcement officers who are expected to try to sort out the difference amid the chaos of a situation like the shooting of Martin Boegel on Tantalus on Sunday.

After such an incident, the civic impulse always tends toward an examination of laws on the books to see if there is something that could be legislated to make a tragic repeat less likely.

But so far this looks like a mental health issue, not a gun issue.

In the Sunday incident, an FBI agent shot a man carrying a replica handgun, commonly known as an airsoft gun, designed to shoot pellets. Unstable and possibly suicidal, Boegel brandished the fake gun at passing motorists and refused to put it down when confronted by the off-duty agent.

On Tuesday, Honolulu police officials showed an impressive display of airsoft guns that made clear the difficulty in trying to tell the difference between a fake gun and the real thing. It is precisely the airsoft's detailed resemblance to a real weapon that makes it appealing to buyers, mostly young men, who use them in shooting games or buy them just because they look and feel "cool" and deadly.

The popularity of the replicas led Honolulu to pass a law in 2003 requiring that such guns be carried in cases. Federal law also requires that replicas have a bright orange tip attached to the barrel, but since that defeats the purpose of having a real-looking fake gun, that's usually the first thing to go.

A bill that would have made the penalties for using airsoft guns in robberies and terroristic threatening cases identical to the penalties for using real guns didn't make it out of the Legislature this year, despite the support of police chiefs and prosecutors.

We agree with the police; the law shouldn't make a distinction between the person pointing a real Glock and an airsoft Glock. Both should face up to 20 years in jail the current law only says 10 for the users of fake guns.

In recent years, Hawai'i police officers have not only shot people with real guns, but people threatening with fake guns, knives, clubs, pipes and cars. These are tense encounters that unfold in seconds, unlike the comparatively calm scenarios on TV where sharp-eyed, steel-nerved officers can bring down a suspect with a nonlethal shot, or tell from 50 yards away whether someone's waving a handgun or a cell phone.

With the popularity of faux guns, it's hard imagining how new laws or rules would make it less likely that a nonlethal model would be mistaken for a real weapon. That's a distinction no one should expect police officers to make out on the street.