Protests have erupted in Santa Rosa, California over the death of 13-year-old Andy Lopez, who was fatally shot when police mistook his BB gun for an assault rifle. On Tuesday, police identified the officer responsible, Erick Gelhaus, as a longtime firearms expert. Gelhaus reportedly assumed the toy was a AK-47 rifle, and within 10 seconds of warning Lopez to “put the gun down” fired seven shots at point-blank range. Lopez died at the scene.
Gelhaus and the involved officers have been put on administrative leave, pending investigation. Before the shooting, he had written articles defending police shootings, saying, “Today is the day you may need to kill someone in order to go home. If you cannot turn on the ‘mean gene’ for yourself, who will?”
How did a firearms expert end up thinking an eighth-grader’s BB gun posed a danger? The toy is meant to be a replica of an assault rifle, only different in size and coloring and that it shoots plastic BBs. The Press Democrat described what the two looked like side-by-side: “In the light of the Finley Center the model Lopez carried was clearly plastic with a transparent center section. The BB gun also had a shorter barrel.” But the model Lopez had was designed to look real, and it was apparently missing an orange plastic plug, a common feature of toy guns that satisfies the federal requirement to differentiate itself from a firearm. It is illegal to remove the plug, but not impossible to do it. These guns can only be sold to people over age 18.
Now, state Senator Kevin de León plans to re-introduce a bill from two years ago that requires clear markings for BB and air guns, going beyond the orange plug. As SF Gate reported, California law requires toy guns to look like toys, brightly colored or transparent, but the requirement has not applied to pellet and BB guns.
Realistic-looking BB and air guns have been a source for tragedy, and pose a risk to children who perceive them as toys. A couple of days ago it led to a 6-year-old boy killing a 12-year-old, by firing a pellet gun he found at a birthday party.