New York's latest crime-buster: muzzling toy guns

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Her voice is impish and feminine, but her gun is menacing. "Give me your money," she says through a ski mask to a bank teller in New Jersey. The teller hands over $3,050, and the robber and another female speed off in a getaway car.

But this wasn't exactly a Thelma & Louise duo. These robbers were 14-year-old twin girls who held up a bank with a toy air-pellet gun this fall.

Their crime added fuel to a toy-gun scare that's sweeping the country: Baltimore just passed a law that makes it a misdemeanor to sell a BB gun to a minor; Chicago has introduced a bill to ban toy-pellet guns; Wal-Mart recently raised its age restriction for air-powered paint guns to 18; and Carrollton, Texas, has banned the public use of replica guns.

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And in New York, the site of many toy-gun fatalities, City Council members have introduced a bill to ban the sale of all toy guns - a ban that has not yet passed anywhere in the US. If the bill is approved, officials think it could help blaze the trail for the state, as well as cities nationwide.

"We recognize that you can't pull all guns off the streets: If people have a criminal mind, they'll make a gun out of a stick," says Bill Wren, deputy chief of staff for Brooklyn Councilman Al Vann, who coauthored the bill. "But the bill is about how [a toy gun] makes people feel. If I feel threatened, I'm threatened."

According to the most recent study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 1990, police departments nationwide reported 31,650 imitation guns seized between January 1985 and September 1989 during crime-related incidents. In New York City alone, more than 1,400 toy guns were used in crimes in 1987, 80 percent more than four years earlier.

New York City's current law, signed in 1998, prohibits the sale of toy guns unless they are brightly colored or transparent or have a prominent trademark. But some City Council members think the law is ineffective: Kids can make toy guns look real simply by spray-painting a gun black, or hiding the toy trademark with tape. And even though Toys "R" Us and KB Toys removed realistic-looking weapons from shelves in 1994, some manufacturers still sell replica guns elsewhere.

"If a kid has a toy gun that looks real, he could be in danger," says David Weprin, a Queens councilman and co-author of the bill. "We shouldn't glorify guns by giving them to our kids as toys," says the father of five.

Toy manufacturers are opposed to the outright ban, since there is already a federal restriction on toy guns. Current federal law prohibits manufacturers from selling imitation firearms unless there is a orange plug in the barrel or a marking designated by the Commerce secretary. According to the law, imitation firearms include BB guns, air rifles, and pellet guns. The bill in City Council, on the other hand, would ban anything that can "reasonably be perceived to be an actual firearm," which would mean a total ban on imitation firearms - regardless of color or markings.

"If the federal law needs to be strengthened, we support it," says Tom Conley, president of the Toy Industry Association. "But if a product in no way resembles a real gun, we want to ensure that it reaches the market."

Still, grass-roots interest in a blanket ban on toy guns is growing. "Giving our kids toy guns and then telling them to stay away from the real thing sends a mixed message," says Farideh Kioumehr, founder of the Anti- Violence Campaign in Sherman Oaks, Calif. She encourages children to turn in toy guns, which are then used in pieces of art. The program, Replacing Violence With Art, has collected more than 20,000 toy guns.

Meanwhile, the impact of deaths from toy guns is ricocheting across the country, and more people in New York are thinking twice about buying them.

Christopher Industrious of Manhattan, who was shopping in Times Square, would support the new ban. "Kids are imitating whatever they see in the movies and on TV," he says, motioning to his 3-year-old son. He says that one time when disciplined, his son "pointed his water gun at me."

"Like toy cigarettes, they're promoting something violent," adds Donna Csolak of Princeton, N.J., who was at the Times Square Toys "R" Us. But she concedes she's against the ban because people should have a choice in their purchases. "Everyone has a right to buy what they want, but parents should have control over what [their kids] buy."

For Maurice Davis, a salesman at Toys "R" Us, his unfortunate childhood encounters with both real and toy guns are seared on his memory. Growing up in Brooklyn, Mr. Davis was forbidden to play with toy guns. But when he was 11, a playmate pointed a toy gun at a police car. The cops mistook the toy for a real weapon, and sprinted toward them, brandishing guns. "I told my friend, 'Just drop the gun!' " says Davis.

Now, standing next to a shelf of oversize paint guns, Davis says, "If they're gonna ban some, they might as well ban them all."

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