Police: Telling If a Gun Is Real Or Fake Sometimes “Virtually Impossible”

Posted at 10:55 PM, Nov 19, 2013
and last updated 2013-11-19 22:59:31-05

PAW PAW, Mich. – Is the gun real or fake? It’s a distinction police officers make in the line of duty and a decision that comes with real consequences.

On Saturday afternoon in Battle Creek, police said an officer shot a person who was carrying what appeared to be a handgun, police tell FOX 17 the person shot was a 14-year-old carrying a fake weapon.

While that incident is being investigated by Michigan State Police, Lt. Chuck Christensen showed us a side-by-side comparison of real and fake guns to illustrate how difficult it can be to tell the difference between the two guns.

Christensen said the encounters with fake guns are rare, but when they happen he said they can have life changing consequences.

“In a situation, an emotionally charged situation like that, there are many things going through your mind,” the Lt. said.  “You have seconds to react.  When you do react, as a human being you want to make sure you made the right call.”

Lt. Christensen said throughout an officers training they are taught to shoot if they feel a life is in danger, “If the conditions are low-light and you have seconds to react, it’s virtually impossible to tell the difference between a legitimate firearm and a b b gun or an Airsoft weapon.”

A call made even more difficult with imitation guns made to look identical to the real thing.  Police said the most common copy-cat gun they encounter is an Airsoft gun.

“It’s a gun that fires a plastic b b, usually a 20 millimeter b b,” said Lt. Christensen.  “A lot of kids have these and they can fully automatic, semi-automatic, some run on a propane and they use them to play Airsoft wars.”

The fakes are usually distinguished by having an orange tip, something police say can be easily modified with a piece of tape.

14-year-old Nick King was said by Battle Creek Police to have been carrying a replica of a Smith and Wesson semi-automatic handgun when he was shot by a 21-year veteran of the Battle Creek Police Department.

He continues to recover in a hospital, his mother tells FOX 17 that she has hired a lawyer to represent the family going forward.  The police officer was put on leave while MSP continues its investigation.

FOX 17 spoke with Dr. David Carter, a former police officer and current professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University.  He said he’s interviewed 25 officers involved in a shooting with a person carrying a fake gun for a study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice.

He concluded in all cases the officers focused on the persons behavior, rather than type of gun in their hands.

“The officer is focused on the face, because the face and the eyes gives you insight on what this person is thinking and doing,” said Dr. Carter.  “They are not looking at the gun and at the hands, their peripheral vision will pick it up, but that is not what they are focusing on.”

Neither the professor nor Lt. Christensen said they believe officer training will change.  Lt. Christensen said he does encourage people who own imitation guns to be cautious.

“Set the gun down on the ground immediately if you even see a police car coming because it’s very hard for the officer out of the street to know the difference,” he said.

Dr. Carter said in most of the cases he studied, the police officer was responding to a 9-1-1 call of a person armed with a gun.  He said that information will put the officer in a mindset that the situation his entering is one of potential danger.