BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - Is this a real gun or just a toy?
You’ve already had longer to answer a question that doesn’t directly affect your life right now, a question police officers have to answer in a split second, with an answer that could be life threatening for officers or the person holding it.
“We were surprised at how real it actually looked," is how Irondale Police Sgt. Michael Mangina described an airsoft gun brought to a school in 2014.
A new investigation found making these toy guns look as realistic as possible isn’t just art, it’s profitable for real gun companies.
“They were essentially sharing in the profits from these Airsoft guns,” says journalist Alain Stephens who writes for The Trace.
Stephens writes about licensing agreements between big gun companies like Colt and Sig Sauer, and major Airsoft gun manufacturers that paid millions for the right to make the guns look as real as possible.
“They had brokered all sorts of deals going back 20 years,” Stephens says. “We actually found photos of the then-CEO of Cyber Gun Jerome Marsac shaking hands with Mikhail Kalashnikov, the inventor of the AK-47, they’re toasting vodka. The specifics about how much money was being transferred is still secretive and proprietary, but we estimate it’s up into the millions.”
Airsoft guns are supposed to have orange tips that make it quick and easy to distinguish real from fake, but kids are finding quick ways to modify them.
“The Airsoft manufacturer actually sells metallic replacements so you can put that metallic tip on there so you can get it looking like your favorite gun because that’s part of the appeal to get it looking just like your favorite gun from a movie or TV show or military unit,” Stephens says.
Here are examples of some of those modifications.
“When it comes to the orange tip, the regulations on that are very lax,” Stephens says. “They’re mostly kind of loaded onto the manufacturer and sellers end. But as the consumer or user, there is no law that requires you to have that blaze orange tip, and this is something that Airsoft gun manufacturers know.”
In January, police in Tempe, AZ shot and killed a 14-year-old when they mistook an Airsoft gun for a real one while responding to a suspected burglary, and Stephens says the prospect of making that mistake haunts police.
"They’re really concerned because they’re coming across this everyday and even when it wasn’t a shooting, they were still having these really close calls where they were having to de-escalate scenarios--sending multiple officers to calls where ‘we have a man with a gun’, says Stephens.
California recently passed a law requiring Airsoft guns sold there to have bigger and more obvious orange markings and Stephens says three U.S. senators are asking the Department of Commerce to look at new regulations to do the same nationwide.
The blurring lines between these two kinds of guns is also creating problems in the reverse. Police say they’re also now seeing criminals paint the tips of real guns orange to confuse officers into thinking their weapon isn’t a real threat.