An investigation is underway in Prince Georges County, Maryland, to determine whether police officers were justified Saturday when they shot and killed a 20-year-old man carrying an air gun. Among other issues, the investigation will take into account both the perceived and real threat police face when confronted with air guns.
It is not uncommon for police to fire on suspects holding air guns. In May, officers investigating a domestic incident in the Denver suburb of Lakewood shot and wounded a man who pointed an air gun at them. In January, officers in Grand Rapids, Michigan shot and wounded a teenager who threatened them with an air gun resembling a semi-automatic pistol. In December 2012, New York City narcotics officers shot and killed a career criminal who aimed an air pistol at them during a bust. In that case, the air pistol resembled a Glock 19 semi-automatic handgun similar to a model favored by law enforcement officers.
Even though the gun in the New York shooting resembled a high-powered handgun and officers only had an instant to decide whether to fire in self defense, bystanders criticized them for using excessive force. “The guy, he had a fake gun and he tried to play around with the officer,” a witness said. “The officer, he right away killed him.”
Air guns do not have a reputation for being as dangerous as “real” guns, but they can be lethal. Last October in Hamilton County, Indiana, 45-year-old Jesus Martinez-Lopez was standing in his driveway when he was killed by a 19-year-old neighbor who shot him with an air rifle as a prank. In June 2013 in Clinton County, Pennnsylvania, 15-year-old Tristin “Ty” Yonkin died when he was accidentally shot with an air gun. In July 2000 in Brooklyn, New York, a rooftop sniper armed with an air gun killed 30-year-old Joffre Cedeno and wounded four more people before police captured him. One of the wounded lost an eye.
Data on air gun deaths are sparse, but a 2004 article in the medical journal Pediatrics estimated that air guns kill four people a year. The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence reports that air guns wounded 13,851 people in 2010.
The threat police face from air guns has grown since the 70s with the introduction of pre-charged pneumatic (PCP) air guns. These weapons have built-in pressurized air chambers filled by “bicycle pumps” or compressed air cylinders. Unlike the classic Daisy Red Ryder air gun that shoots a .177-caliber copper BB at a maximum speed of 350 feet per second, a Crossman PPC Marauder air rifle can shoot the same BB at 1,100 feet per second, which is approximately the speed of sound.
Along with greater velocities, PCP air guns can fire larger caliber bullets for hunting small game such as squirrels and rabbits. Crossman’s Rogue® PCP rifle fires a .375 caliber bullet, the same diameter as the .357 caliber hand gun, at 800 feet per second and can bring down small predators such as coyotes.
These high-velocity air guns are typically used for target practice and are seldom the type that police officers encounter. The weapons that worry officers most are the air guns that resemble high-power hand guns, sub-machine guns and assault rifles. The MAR 177 conversion kit sold by Crossman fits into the stock of an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, the civilian version of the military M-16 assault rifle.
Ironically, Airsoft is the least-powerful category of air gun most encountered by police. Airsoft guns typically fire soft plastic .177 caliber pellets at velocities of no more than 390 feet per second. Airsoft aficionados wearing goggles, face masks and protective gear use the guns in mock combat games.
The problem with Airsoft weapons is that they look exactly like real combat guns. Bright orange plastic tips on the ends of barrels are supposed to let police know that they aren’t the real thing, but criminals remove the tips or paint them black.
Every shooting that involves a police officer is investigated to determine all the circumstances. Simply because a suspect was armed with an air gun does not mean that investigators can assume the police officer was faced with a real threat.
Opinion By J.W. Huttig