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More trouble for a fake gun than a real one?

Posted: 6:00 AM, Feb 06, 2016
Updated: 2016-02-06 06:00:07-05

COLUMBUS — Imagine this scenario: A boy is playing with a replica gun in a park. Someone calls 911. A police cruiser approaches. A shot is fired. The boy is on the ground.

That’s the story of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was fatally shot in Cleveland by police after a 911 caller said Rice was wielding a gun. The gun was actually an airsoft pellet gun.

In the wake of Rice’s shooting and other similar cases, a state lawmaker thinks he has a solution to the problem: Propose a bill that would prohibit any person in Ohio from manufacturing, selling or publicly displaying an object that looks similar to a real firearm.

Rep. Bill Patmon, D-Cleveland, said the bill would help prevent individuals from being shot because they were mistaken for carrying a real firearm in a public place. 

“Things have changed,” Patmon said. “We have to make laws to help our society to not have catastrophic incidents.”

Months before Rice’s death, John Crawford III was shot and killed by police in a Wal-Mart while holding an air rifle. He was 22.

The bill was introduced last year, but it received its first committee hearing this week.

Early last year, Rep. Alicia Reece, D-Cincinnati, also introduced a similar bill that would ban the sale and public display of imitation firearms.

When asked about what kind of replica guns would be prohibited in this bill, Patmon said, “If it looks like a (real) gun, then it falls under this piece of legislation.”

If the bill becomes law, a person can openly carry a real gun into unrestricted areas but would be committing a crime for carrying an a replica gun in public.

“If it looks like a gun, then people react to it as though it was a gun,” Patmon said. “If you’re going to get shot down, then you should at least have a real gun.”

Ohio is an open-carry state, but a gun owner must have a license to conceal or carry a gun in certain places.

A public place, according to the bill, is an area “open to the public,” which include streets, sidewalks, parking lots, parks, front yards and restaurants.

The bill, however, makes certain exceptions. It allows the sale of nonfiring collector’s replicas and BB devices that expel projectiles of a certain caliber. Imitation firearms can still be used in theatrical production, sporting events and military ceremonies.

“There is some compromise necessary,” Patmon said.

A person who violates any of the prohibitions in the bill would be committing a misdemeanor.

The bill also outlaws any modification on a replica to make it look like a real firearm.

The ban on an object that looks like a real firearm is not going to solve the problem, said Joe Eaton, treasurer of the Buckeye Firearms Association.

“It’s the person’s actions and the way that they are using the objects, which can cause problems,” Eaton said. “That’s what we should look at, educating people on the proper way that they should handle these (guns) and the way they should present them.”

Eaton said a person must always be aware of his or her actions and how people would perceive those actions, whether the firearm is fake or real.

Jennifer Thorne, the executive director of Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence, said the bill would reduce confusion and make an officer’s job easier.

“More and more of the toys our kids are playing with look real,” Thorne said. “Is it wise for kids to be playing with something that could be mistaken for a deadly weapon? (The bill) is not to criminalize Tamir, it’s just to send a signal saying, ‘This is a way we can protect our children.’”

Joshua Lim is a fellow in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism Statehouse News Bureau. You can reach him at joshielim93@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter at @JoshuaLim93.