BY DON HEINZMAN
Police officers are placed in tough positions when they are confronted by someone who appears to have a weapon which turns out to be an Airsoft gun or a replica of a gun.
They must decide in a split second how they should respond, not knowing if the gun is real or fake.
At the urging of their police chief, the Hopkins City Council unanimously passed an ordinance that bans use of Airsoft guns and other replica firearms in public places. BB guns that shoot steel pellets are also banned.
Public places, according to the ordinance, are areas around homes and businesses that can be viewed from nearby buildings and from the street or sidewalk.
Hopkins Police Chief Michael Reynolds told the council the replica firearms are more realistic and could present a danger to his officers and the public.
He cited a case where three young girls in a house in Hopkins saw a man wearing a ski mask get out of his car with a gun in his hand. The girls refused to give a description of the man, and police were dispatched to the scene. They wrestled the man to the ground and handcuffed him, before they discovered the gun was a fake.
Reynolds cited a case in Texas where a middle school student was shot and killed by police who did not know if the student had a real or fake weapon.
Hopkins police have dealt with a half dozen such cases a year and at no time have officers shot someone when confronted, not knowing if a gun is real.
Minneapolis, St. Paul and Brooklyn Center have similar ordinances.
Some critics may argue that banning these replica guns is an over-reaction, and deprives people of use of these guns on their own property.
Besides, they say these fake weapons are marked with an orange tip. Police counter that some rub the paint off and it’s difficult to see at night.
Chief Reynolds trusts his officers to use discretion in deciding whom to charge.
There are logical exceptions to the ordinance, as to what are public places. The penalty is a misdemeanor which could draw up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Since the ordinance was passed, calls to the Hopkins council and the police department have been mostly supportive.
Chief Reynolds said he doesn’t want his officers’ lives destroyed because they shot and killed someone who had a toy gun that looked real. "I don’t want any of our officers shot and killed because they thought the gun that killed them was a fake gun when it actually was real."
The ordinance makes sense, because it keeps officers and the public from being harmed by someone brandishing a fake gun. Other cities should consider following Hopkins City Council’s example.
Don Heinzman is an editorial writer for ECM Publishers. Sun Newspapers welcomes responses to this and any other editorial page commentary. Send to: [email protected].