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RULES setting limits on the display and/or discharge of so-called “look-alike weapons” such as BB guns, paint guns or pellet guns in public and adopted July 1 by the Columbus City Council got a test of sorts this month. It couldn’t be enforced.
Eight officers from the Columbus Police Department responded Oct. 7 to a report of a man pointing an assault rifle at motorists on the northwest side of the city. The first officer to arrive at the scene witnessed a young man in the backyard of a residence near Lowell Road holding what at first appeared to be an assault rifle.
Fortunately, the individual immediately complied with the officer’s command to drop the weapon. Upon investigation the officer determined that the weapon was actually a low-velocity pellet gun. The individual and a friend said they had been shooting at targets in the backyard of the home, not aware that they could have been creating an impression of something potentially more dangerous than a pellet gun.
The incident met the requirements of the July 1 ordinance, except in one respect. The law requires that the individual displaying the look-alike gun should be younger than 18 if any charges are to be filed. The young man in the Lowell Road incident was 18.
The council was moved to take that action over concerns raised by police about the alarming number of reports of similar look-alike guns being displayed in public. In one incident, according to Columbus Police Chief Jason Maddix, officers responded to reports of a man pointing a gun at passing cars by deploying AR-15 rifles and taking up tactical positions. The gun in that incident happened to be one of the look-alikes.
The concern over these situations is not that the holder of the weapon is going to inflict any serious injury or create significant property damage (although the potential certainly exists), but that such a situation could trigger tragic responses, either from onlookers or even the police.
In adopting the modified ordinance, council members repeatedly voiced concerns about overreactions by individuals who might act on the perception that someone is pointing a real gun at them and pull their own weapon. The situation is especially stressful on police officers who, despite their extensive training, might fire at what is perceived to be the first wrong move.
By taking their limited action July 1, the council does appear to have had an effect on what was developing into an alarming situation. In the first six months of the year, prior to adoption of the ordinance, police had received about 24 calls that turned out to be for look-alike guns. Most of those incidents involved people younger than 18.
But this latest incident reflects the reality that the situation is not age-specific. The bearer of the weapon might not have any ill intentions, but the fear that can be caused by mistaken impressions could engender real tragedies.
The City Council moved very cautiously to the initial action, citing concerns about the constitutionality of a comprehensive law. The members also were moved by the issue of protecting the safety of the public.
This latest incident would seem to demonstrate that the danger is not limited by age. The council needs to take a renewed look at what was done in July and consider expanding the restriction to all ages, not just those under 18.
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