The big local news this week could have very easily been about the tragic deaths of two kids in Boynton Beach.
The two boys, ages 10 and 12, skipped school Monday, opting instead to point realistic looking BB guns at passing cars on Miner Road and Ocean Parkway.
When police arrived, the boys threw down the guns — their first good decision of the afternoon — and ran until they were snagged a block away, according to police.
One of the officers later said that it wasn’t clear that the black handguns the boys had been holding were fake until he got close enough to the discarded guns to read the writing on the barrels.
We’ve seen this play out differently, and horrifically, in other jurisdictions.
The black BB guns the Boynton kids carried didn’t look very different from the Daisy Powerline 340 BB gun that a Baltimore teenager, Dedric Colvin had in his hand last April when passing police detectives confused the teen’s BB gun for a semi-automatic firearm.
Colvin, a 13-year-old eighth grader, didn’t drop the BB gun when the detectives stopped. Instead, he ran with the BB gun in his hand, and a detective shot and wounded the boy in the leg and shoulder during the foot chase.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said it was understandable why the detectives thought the BB gun was a lethal firearm.
“I looked at it myself today, I stood right over top of it, I put my own eyes on it,” Davis told The Baltimore Sun. “It’s an absolute, identical replica semiautomatic pistol. Those police officers had no way of knowing that it was not, in fact, an actual firearm.”
Colvin survived. Tamir Rice, 12, in Cleveland didn’t. Rice was shot and killed two years ago when a city police officer mistook the pellet gun in the boy’s hand for a firearm.
And two months ago, Tyre King, a 13-year-old boy in Columbus, Ohio, with a BB gun designed to look like a Smith & Wesson Military & Police semiautomatic pistol, was shot and killed by a police officer who was chasing him on foot.
If the boys in Boynton Beach this week were waving around toy guns, and not air-powered BB guns, their toy weapons would have been required to have orange-colored caps on the barrels that identify them as harmless.
But the bright orange tips aren’t required on BB guns, which are intentionally designed to resemble popular brands of lethal firearms and can be purchased online or in local sporting goods stores for as little as $30.
And because BB guns don’t use an explosive charge, they’re not considered firearms by federal law.
Their use falls under the purview of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which recommends that children under 16 should not use the guns and that “these guns should never be aimed at another person.”
With federal regulations largely absent, nearly half the states have taken it upon themselves to create their own laws regarding BB guns.
Florida is one of them.
Florida law prohibits minors under the age of 16 from possessing “BB guns, air or gas-operated guns, or electric weapons or devices” unless these minors are “under the supervision and in the presence of an adult who is acting with the consent of the minor’s parent.”
And adults who allow their children under 16 to use a BB gun unsupervised in Florida are subject to a misdemeanor criminal charge.
Florida hasn’t gone as far as Rhode Island, which classifies all air guns as firearms, and prohibits felons from possessing air pistols or air rifles.
New Jersey takes the extra step of requiring a permit for buyers of air guns. And possessing a BB gun without a permit can be punishable by up to three years in prison in that state.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that about four people a year are killed in the United States by pellet guns.
But that figure doesn’t account for the dangers faced when they are confused by police officers or other lawful gun-carrying citizens as deadly firearms.
Two boys in Boynton Beach found that out this week.