By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
Last month, New York Attorney General Letitia James called for changes to standards for the manufacturing of realistic toy guns, urging the Biden-Harris Administration to strengthen federal regulations mandating distinct visual differences between toy guns, BB/pellet guns, and lethal firearms.
“When toy guns are indistinguishable from actual firearms, the consequences can, and have been, deadly. We must take action to protect our children and our communities.
“We must put people above profit and ensure our police, crime victims, and children can clearly and easily distinguish fake guns from real ones.”
Currently, toy guns must have either a permanently affixed bright orange plug inserted in the barrel, a similar marking on the barrel’s exterior, be constructed entirely of transparent or translucent materials, or be covered in certain bright colors. California’s law, Senate Bill 199, was passed in 2014. Democratic Senators Noreen Evans, Kevin de Leon and Lois Wolk introduced the bill after 13-year-old Andy Lopez was killed in October 2013 in Santa Rosa by a deputy who mistook his fake AK-47 for a real one.
Kids of all backgrounds have long played with toy guns, entertaining themselves as “cowboys and Indians” and “cops and robbers.” Guns have also been glorified through popular video games, movies and music videos.
A simple search on Amazon found several toy guns billed as a “realistic model.” The manufacturer BBTac sells models including pistols, Uzis and replicas of weapons used in World War II and the Vietnam War.
A soft bullet gun from Upwsma “simulates real manual loading.” A toy pistol from Mei Xing comes with a red slider and silencer or a blue handle. Upwsma offers a similar model in silver and black.
Some toy guns can’t be shipped to California addresses without distinguishable toy characteristics. But some get around the restrictions by purchasing in another state and then bringing it home or having a relative forward it.
Even with safety indicators, some toy guns are hard to distinguish from real ones in “split-second, high-stress situations.” This can prove especially perilous for Black boys.
Tamir Rice, 12, was killed by a White police officer in Cleveland on Nov. 22, 2014, after dispatchers received calls that a male was walking around a park with a gun. The fact that callers said Rice was a child and the gun was “probably fake” reportedly was not relayed to officers.
In 2016, another Black boy, 13-year-old Tyre King, was fatally shot by an officer in Columbus, Ohio. Officers say King, a suspect in an armed robbery, pulled a gun from his waistband, prompting the officer to fire multiple times. Ironically, King’s toy gun was an exact replica of the police-issued pistol that killed him.
This past October, a White high schooler, Alexander King was killed by officers in Tarpon Springs, Florida, after he was seen with what they thought was a military-style assault rifle. It was a nonlethal, air-powered pellet gun.
Such incidents have caused considerable debate around whether African Americans should buy guns for their children or allow them to play with such toys given to them as gifts.
Local mom Brandi Taylor said she has purchased toy guns for her son, Jonathan Taylor-Goodwill. The few he has, though, feature very bright colors that make it obvious they are “very fake,” and that he typically plays with them only indoors, a step Taylor takes to keep him safe. “Because when you see a Black child, male child, with a gun, people automatically get scared,” she said.
A tragedy such as Rice’s death, which occurred when her son was 8 months old, “hurts me to my core,” she said.
Tracy Shaw, co-owner of Crowder’s Variety Store inside Florin Square, says he recently debated whether to sell toy guns. He said he bought his now-adult children toy guns when they were minors, but pointed out kids’ inventiveness can work against household rules.
“They’d bite the corner off a piece of bread, literally, and use the rest of it as a gun,” he said.
Times have changed, Shaw acknowledged. He recognized a “stigma” attached to guns, even replicas, when making purchases for his store. He had planned to stock toy firearms for the holiday season. “They probably would have sold,” he said, “but these guns came with handcuffs. You know, it’s the whole police thing and I’m thinking, I don’t even want to be a part of that or part of that narrative.”
Dire consequences also have followed when young children have gotten their hands on real guns.
In March 2019, 4-year-old Na’Vaun Jackson of Oakland, accidentally shot himself in the head after finding his mother’s boyfriend’s gun under a pillow. The child, who is the great nephew of Sacramento activist Jamilia Land, survived but deals with physical repercussions.
Last month, a Black father, Jeffrey Braxton Crocker, was arrested in Florida after his 6-year-old daughter carried a loaded gun inside of a backpack onto a school bus. Crocker was charged with failing to properly store a firearm and child endangerment.
Xanthi Soriano, Elk Grove Unified School District director of communications, said students who bring a firearm or an “imitation” to school can be subject to suspension or expulsion under the California Education Code.
In October, a 16-year-old Elk Grove High School student learned an arrest also can result after allegedly bringing a gun onto campus in a backpack. That same month, Cosumnes Oaks High School was locked down after reports of a gun on campus. While no weapon was found, several Black students told local media that they felt racially profiled during deputies’ on-campus search. In May, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office was called to Elk Grove High after someone reported seeing a student with a gun. The “gun” was actually a stapler the student was using to act out a scene from a movie, law enforcement officials confirmed.
Guns often are glorified in depictions of violence in music lyrics and popular films. Owners such as Khiry Moore say weapons aren’t just for those looking to commit crimes. The local father is teaching his son Khison, who turns 2 in February, what responsible gun ownership looks like.
Moore said Khison doesn’t yet have toy guns, but they won’t be off limits. He said that even at his young age, Khison knows to respect firearms. “Right now it’s ‘Don’t touch,’ so he literally says ‘Gun, don’t touch,’” Moore said. “He only touches it if I touch it with him. The same as we teach him the stove is hot.”
Moore keeps a firearm as protection for his family and stores it in a secure case. Khison will attend safety training when he’s older, Moore said. Hiding guns from kids, he said, isn’t the answer and leads only to more accidents because young people aren’t taught how to respect the weapon.
“So then when a child sees the gun they are curious and — boom,” Moore said.
Area law enforcement agencies can provide families with free gun safety kits, which include a cable-style gun-locking device and instructions. The kits are provided through Project ChildSafe, which is sponsored by the National Shooting Sports Foundation and can be obtained locally through agencies such as the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office, police departments in Elk Grove, Citrus Heights and West Sacramento, the California Department of Fish and Game in Rancho Cordova, the UC Davis Police Department and the Los Rios Police Department.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Visit www.sacobserver.com to watch Genoa Barrow talk to Black parents about buying their children toy guns.