Baltimore OKs ban of replica guns

"For the safety of our children," Baltimore City Council advances replica gun ban.

The Baltimore City Council gave preliminary approval Monday to a citywide ban on toy guns that look like working handguns and rifles.

Council members introduced the legislation after a 14-year-old East Baltimore boy holding a BB gun was shot by a city police detective in April.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said replica guns are contributing to violence on Baltimore's streets. He said people are using the fake weapons in robberies, and children who carry them are put in harm's way.

There have been more than 800 shootings this year in Baltimore, which is on pace to pass 300 homicides for a second consecutive year.

"It's something that we should do for the safety of our children," Young said. "We're getting stores robbed with replicas. We've got people running around with these things and they almost look real. ... I don't think we should be allowing replica guns in the city of Baltimore, especially with the murder rate we have."

A police detective in East Baltimore shot and wounded 14-year-old Dedric Colvin in the shoulder and leg in April.

Police said the boy was carrying a spring-air-powered BB gun that resembled a semiautomatic pistol. He survived the shooting.

Police Commissioner Kevin Davis called the Daisy brand PowerLine Model 340 spring-air pistol that Dedric was carrying an "absolute, identical replica semiautomatic pistol."

City Councilman James B. Kraft introduced the proposed ban. He said the "easiest way to resolve this is to get the replica guns off the streets."

Under the legislation, owning, carrying or otherwise possessing a replica that could "reasonably be perceived to be a real firearm" could result in a $250 fine for a first offense. Fines would rise to $1,000 for second and subsequent offenses.

The council voted unanimously Monday, without discussion, to allow a final vote on Kraft's bill. The bill is expected to pass by December.

"These replica guns are not toys," Kraft said. "They look exactly like real guns, and unless you are standing there holding them in your hands you cannot tell the difference. We need to get them off the streets.

"The fewer guns we have on the streets, real or replica, the safer it is."

Gun-rights advocates opposed the bill.

Mark W. Pennak, president of Maryland Shall Issue Inc., wrote to the council that the legislation is "hopelessly vague" and violates federal law, which prohibits states from banning the sale of some replica firearms.

The city law department notes that Kraft's bill prohibits possession of the replica guns, not their sale, and argues it is therefore legal.

Pennak wrote that the legislation would "create a whole new class of criminals in the City of Baltimore for the mere home possession by entire families of otherwise perfectly legal toys!"

"There are better ways to address the underlying concerns without flouting federal law and without subjecting the citizens of the City to discriminatory arrests and prosecutions for violations of a vague law," he wrote.

Kraft said the bill was amended to respond to concerns of the National Rifle Association and firearms instructors. Under the revised legislation, replicas can be used for training purposes by certified instructors and in certain competitions.

Antique replica guns are not prohibited. Kraft said replicas also are allowed for theatrical productions.

"If you have a replica gun and you're using it at Center Stage, then you can use the replica gun," he said.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake supports the ban, her spokesman said.

"Mayor Rawlings-Blake has every intention of signing the legislation when it reaches her desk," spokesman Anthony McCarthy said. "Her interest is in ensuring that we educate the public of the potentially dangerous consequences of putting replica guns in the hands of our children."

The Baltimore bill follows similar legislation in New York, Chicago and Washington.

Dedric Colvin's shooting came amid a series of violent encounters nationwide involving realistic-looking toy guns. Police in Columbus, Ohio, shot and killed 13-year-old Tyre King after he allegedly pulled out a BB gun with a laser sight.

The police shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in a public park in Cleveland in 2014 drew national attention. Video footage showed the boy holding a toy gun in a public park.

The city of Cleveland agreed to pay $6 million to settle a federal lawsuit brought by Tamir Rice's family.

The shootings have helped fuel discussion of the way police officers — and others — view black youths. Many have argued that black children playing with BB guns are perceived as threats in a way white children are not.

Davis, who is white, has said the Baltimore encounter might have ended differently if his sons had been in Dedric Colvin's place.

"They're two 13-year-old white kids," he said. "If they had a gun in their hand, would it be perceived differently? Yeah, I'd be the first one to admit that."

The Baltimore Police Department submitted testimony supporting the legislation. Andrew G. Vetter, the chief of staff of the department, wrote that it's virtually impossible for officers to tell the difference between real firearms and replica guns when making quick decisions.

"There are a plethora of replica guns on the market intentionally designed to look as real as possible," he wrote. "When replica guns are mistaken by police as real guns, the outcome can be tragic."

Vetter wrote that replica guns are "frequently being used in street robberies" in Baltimore.

"The widespread availability of real-looking and inexpensive replica guns translates to an easily-accessible street robbery tool," he wrote.

Gun-rights advocates and paintball facility operators successfully opposed a statewide ban of replica guns proposed in Annapolis this year.

After Dedric Colvin's shooting, some state lawmakers said they would try again when the General Assembly convenes in January.

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