This story was published in partnership with the Trace.
When 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by police in 2014 mere seconds after their arrival at a park in Cleveland, the officers said they believed they were in imminent danger because Rice was holding a gun. They didn’t know it was a toy.
According to a report released by the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office, the plastic replica, an airsoft gun that fires 6mm plastic bbs, was so close to the original that "even to a trained eye, careful side-by-side comparison is required." Modeled after a .45-caliber 1911 pistol and originally purchased from Walmart, the fake gun was complete with Colt trademark inscriptions, and produced by Cybergun, a French airsoft manufacturer and longtime partner of Colt manufacturing.
This kind of partnership is not uncommon. In fact, gun companies have long cut lucrative licensing deals with toy manufacturers allowing their products to be reproduced. Some replica airsoft guns share the same branding, weight, and materials as their real-life counterparts; the only difference is they shoot small plastic BBs. And in the half-decade since Rice’s death, little has been done to rein in the spread of these ultra-realistic replicas. In total, the Trace identified 33 gun manufacturers that continue to allow airsoft companies to use their brand and likeness in an effort to produce exacting replicas targeted at children and teens. Even now, this sort of realism has police departments worried that its officers won’t be able to tell the difference between a deadly weapon and a prop, potentially leading to more tragedies like Rice’s killing.
"Every week my cops are coming across interactions that could be far worse outcomes than what they should be because the presence of these devices," said Chief Will Johnson of the Arlington, Texas Police Department. "Even being close [in likeness] is a problem, let alone if it's an absolute shared schematic."
Law enforcement agencies around the nation have continually sent out reminders, mostly to parents and children, that wielding replica weapons can prove lethal. According to the Washington Post’s police shooting database, 153 people have died at the hands of police while holding toy guns since 2015.
Meanwhile, it’s incredibly easy to buy toys like these. Customers are able to select a wide variety of replicas, ranging from AR-15s licensed by Heckler and Koch to high-end shotguns and Uzi submachine guns. Glock, which has historically battled toy makers in court for producing unauthorized copycats of its weapons, gave Umarex, an Arkansas based company, its first worldwide licensing rights to produce airsoft replicas in 2017. KRISS USA, the developer and seller of the Vector submachine gun, opted to create its own umbrella company, hiring former hobbyists and employees with airsoft industry experience to push branded replicas without the hassle of licensing agreements.
But one such company that offers a unique glimpse into this cottage industry is Cybergun, touted as the largest airsoft maker in the world, and the only one that is publicly traded. Cybergun executives have rubbed elbows with a variety of other real-life arms-makers, going so far as hiring John Steele, a former licensing guru from Smith and Wesson, recruiting a former military special forces officer, and signing deals with the private military firm formerly known as Blackwater. Since the company’s founding in 1993, it has brokered dozens of licensing agreements with firearms makers such as FN Herstal, Beretta, and Desert Eagle. Corporate filings from 2003 show CEO Jerome Marsac shaking hands with Mikhail Kalashnikov, the inventor of the AK-47 rifle, after successfully brokering a deal to make toy replicas of his famed rifle. When pressed by a French news outlet over how much Kalashnikov was paid, Marsac refused to give details, saying the sum was a "business secret."
"Let's say that we gave him something to live comfortably in Russia," Marsac told reporters, adding that Cybergun expected to pay royalties to the Kalashnikov family for the foreseeable future.
Gun makers have good reasons to enter into these deals. Since the 1990s, household gun ownership has seen a steady decline, with its chief demographic of older white Americans shrinking. This has caused gun companies to start targeting youth.
"Like any other industry, they look to identify any way they can reach out to children to bring them into the gun culture," said Josh Sugarmann, the executive director of the Violence Policy Center, a gun control advocacy group and co-author of a report on the gun industry’s courting of young people.
There are few laws regulating the sale or appearance of model firearms. Federal law allows airsoft weapons to be used by people of all ages, only requiring purchasers be 18 years of age or older, and that all imported products are marked with a blaze orange tip. Many stores, however, offer metal replacement tips that can be popped on in a matter of seconds. (The orange tip on the airsoft gun owned by Tamir Rice fell off when a friend was repairing it.)
Some states and cities have passed laws cracking down on these replicas. Five years ago, California passed legislation at the behest of then Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, who cited the fatal 2013 shooting of a 13-year-old boy carrying a mock AK-47 and said replica firearms should be vibrantly colored and easily distinguishable. The National Rifle Association as well as the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a gun industry trade group, vehemently opposed the measure. (The NSSF admitted in a statement to the state legislature that "most new shooters do not shoot a real firearm until after they have been trained with a BB device.")
But, mirroring the range of debate over real guns, other jurisdictions have actually loosened regulations on fake guns. Michigan state legislators, with the support of the NRA, passed a law in 2015 to make it easier to purchase airsoft guns by tweaking statutes that originally treated them the same as a firearm. The legislature also reversed a previous law banning individuals under 18 from carrying an air gun without an adult present. With the Tamir Rice shooting fresh on the mind of lawmakers, Democrats opposed the measure, worrying the law could be a "recipe for disaster."
"The fact that it looks real aggravates it," said David Carter, a professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University. Carter researched the topic of toy guns and police interactions for a report commissioned by Congress way back in 1990.
The study found that a variety of factors came into play that could influence an officer before firing on someone who is holding what looks like a gun, including behavior of the subject and information relayed from dispatch. However, it also noted that officers are generally trained to regard all weapons as real (cops are conditioned to see every interaction as potentially life-threatening).
Meanwhile, even as many digital marketplaces and big-box retailers have moved to restrict sales on guns and gun accessories, they continue to sell airsoft guns.
Only a small number of retailers have turned their sights away from products that generate millions a year in revenue. In 2014, Google Adwords, an advertising platform offered by the company, decided to change its policy and ban all promotions of airsoft guns and accessories. "Our top priority is protecting our users," a Google spokesperson told the Trace in a written statement. "Ads for dangerous products and services, including recreational guns that can cause serious harm if misused, are a violation of those policies."
Last year, Walmart said it would limit sales of airsoft by no longer carrying models that resemble assault rifles. It’s unknown if such measures have affected sales. Globally, airsoft manufacturing is estimated to be valued in the billions. In Carter’s view, toy companies know what they are doing when they make their products look exactingly real.
As he put it, "The appeal is profit. They sell well."
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