One hundred and fifty-four people carrying toy weapons have been shot and killed by police since 2015. Whenever any such shooting happens, the victim’s family expresses grief and outrage. The police say they had to fire to protect themselves from what they thought was a real weapon.
That raises a question: why, if police officers keep mistaking toy weapons for real weapons, do toy companies keep selling replicas, many of which use the same branding and materials as their lethal counterparts?
The answer: Lucrative licensing deals between firearms and toy companies that make millions of dollars for each party but leave the customers who play with these guns, many of whom are minors, at risk.
Nonprofit news organization The Trace identified 33 different gun manufacturers “that continue to allow airsoft companies to use their brands and likenesses to produce exacting replicas targeted at children and teens.” Much like cigarette companies, gunmakers have a financial interest in replacing their older, dying customers with young customers who have years of purchasing ahead of them. So in addition to the licensing fees they receive, gun companies get early access to potential future customers.
And even the modest restrictions on toy guns are easily subverted. The mandatory orange tips on toy weapons can be easily swapped out for metal ones. Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy shot and killed by Cleveland police, was carrying a replica gun whose tip had simply fallen off.
The police aren’t happy about this. “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,” Chief Will Johnson of the Arlington Police Department said.
Some cities and states have passed laws restricting the sale of replica weapons, but others have weakened such regulations, often at the behest of the gun lobby. Google did ban airsoft gun companies from advertising on its AdWords platform and Walmart no longer sells models that resemble assault rifles, but it’s unclear if these moves have had any effect on the multibillion-dollar industry.
So despite the fact that they don’t have the firepower of real guns, the authentic appearance of toy guns makes them, in one very real way, just as dangerous as their bullet-firing counterparts. And in the absence of consumer pressure or real regulatory supervision, too much money is being made by toy and real gunmakers for anything to change.