On a warm September evening in Columbus, Ohio, panicked witnesses called police to report that a group of boys had robbed a man at gunpoint and fled into a maze of alleys and fences on the city’s east side.
In the fading light, Officer Bryan Mason cornered two of the boys in an alley, where, according to police, 13-year-old Tyre King pulled a gun from his waistband. Mason fired three rounds, striking the teen in the head, chest and torso.
The black gun police recovered at the scene looked like their own department-issued, polymer-framed Smith & Wesson Military and Police semiautomatic pistol. It even had a laser sight. But police would soon learn that King’s weapon was a BB gun — a facsimile of the gun Mason used to shoot and kill the teen.
At a news conference the next day, Columbus Police Chief Kim Jacobs waved a stock photograph of the BB gun. “Our officers carry a gun that looks practically identical to this weapon,” she said. “. . . It looks like a firearm that could kill you.”
Police across the country say that they are increasingly facing off against people with ultra-real-looking pellet guns, toy weapons and non-functioning replicas.
Such encounters have led police to shoot and kill at least 86 people over the past two years, according to a Washington Post database of fatal police shootings nationwide. So far this year, police have fatally shot 43 people wielding the guns. In 2015, police also killed 43.
The Post analysis is the first accounting of fatal police shootings involving people armed with air guns, toys or replicas, a phenomenon last studied in depth more than 25 years ago, when Congress first sought to address the problem of police shootings involving toy guns. The 86 shooting deaths are among the nearly 2,000 people shot and killed by police since 2015, which The Post is tracking, something no government agency does.
Police recovered a wide variety of the weapons in the fatal shootings, but almost all had one thing in common: They were highly realistic copies of firearms. Of those, 53 were pneumatic BB or pellet guns that fire small-caliber metal balls or pellets. An additional 16 were Airsoft guns, which use compressed air cartridges to fire plastic BBs. Thirteen were replicas, two were toys, one was a starter pistol and one was a lighter.
Experts who study the domestic market for pellet and Airsoft guns said consumer demand for replica firearms has grown.
“They are red hot,” said Tom Gaylord, an industry consultant who runs a popular blog for the Ohio-based Pyramyd Air, one of the largest air gun retailers in the country. Pyramyd Air declined to comment.
Police say it is virtually impossible to train officers to identify imitation firearms from any distance. Short of eliminating the guns, police have little choice but to assume the guns are lethal.
Efforts to stop production of the guns or radically alter their appearance have mostly failed because of resistance from gunmakers and gun rights groups, such as the National Rifle Association.
“We’re talking about this 26 years later, and I’m not sure anything has really changed except that tragic occurrences continue to happen,” said Chuck Wexler, who runs the Police Executive Research Forum, a policing policy think tank that studied the issue in 1990 for Congress. “A toy gun in a country with 300 million real guns is hard to distinguish.”
The role of imitation firearms in fatal police encounters reemerged as a national issue in 2014, when Cleveland police fatally shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was playing with a BB gun in a park. Police were responding to a call about a man with a gun outside a local recreation center. The shooting was among a spate of controversial and deadly encounters with police that helped galvanize the Black Lives Matter movement.
Of the 86 fatal shootings involving imitation firearms since 2015, the most common theme was mental illness: 38 of those killed had a history of it, according to their families and police reports. Fourteen of the calls were domestic disturbances. Ten others began as robberies. The remaining circumstances range from patrolling neighborhoods to serving arrest warrants to making traffic stops.
Of the people killed, 50 were white men. The oldest person killed was Robert Patrick Quinn, 77, who was fatally shot in Pittston, Pa., as he rode his motorized scooter outside an apartment complex while waving a realistic-looking pellet gun.
Half of the shootings happened at night. In almost every case, police said the victims failed to comply with an officer’s orders. In 60 cases, police said they pointed guns at officers.
Among the dead are Ernesto Flores, a mentally distraught 52-year-old man who after a standoff with police in April 2015 stepped out of a pink stucco home in Montclair, Calif., holding a BB gun. Police opened fire, killing Flores in front of his family. One of only five women killed by police was 17-year-old Shelly Haendiges, who was shot in Kokomo, Ind., after police responded to a robbery call and found her pointing a pellet gun at a store clerk. Her family said she suffered from mental illness.
Two of the most recent shootings happened in October in Elkton, Md., where police shot and killed Brandon Jones and Chelsea M. Porter, both 25 and of Dover, Del., after they pointed BB guns at police who were trying to arrest them.
The BB gun recovered after police killed King, the Ohio teenager, was made by Umarex USA, one of the largest air gun and firearm manufacturers in the world and the self-proclaimed “king of replicas.” Umarex makes air guns under the Beretta, Colt, Smith & Wesson, HK, Ruger and Browning brands. It sells BB guns that are copies of such firearms as the iconic Colt Peacemaker, which was first produced in the 1870s, and the Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine, a mainstay of specialized military and police units. The Umarex 40XP BB gun that King allegedly brandished sells for about $50 in stores, including Walmart.
Gunmaker Sig Sauer makes air guns that are advertised as “carbon copies” of their most popular lethal firearms, including the P226 semiautomatic handgun. A commercial on the Sig Sauer website displayed the BB gun and the lethal P226 as reflections of each other in a mirror.
Umarex USA and Sig Sauer did not return repeated calls seeking comment.
Gun rights groups, including Gun Owners of America, based in Virginia, have lobbied against laws that seek to alter air guns to make them distinguishable from firearms.
Michael E. Hammond, a legal adviser to the gun-rights group, said the alterations never seem to be enough for those who dislike guns. “It all arises out of this general animus and media-fed fear of anything that has to do with guns,” Hammond said.
The NRA declined to comment.
In Ohio, where King and Rice were killed, the state does not regulate BB guns and also allows firearms to be openly carried.
The day after Rice’s death, black legislators in Ohio tried to regulate the guns, introducing a law requiring all BB and pellet guns sold in the state to have special markings or be brightly colored. The bill died in committee.
Two years later, police shot King. “Why is it that a 13-year-old would have nearly an exact replica of a police firearm on him in our neighborhoods, an eighth-grader involved in very, very dangerous conduct in one of our neighborhoods?” Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther (D) said at a news conference after the shooting.