At least 245 Americans killed by police for carrying toy guns in past six years

At least 245 people have been fatally shot by authorities while in possession of replica firearms in the last six years, one of the most recent was an 11th grade boy slain while carrying a toy gun in Tarpon Springs, Florida.

Alexander King is seen in this image provided by the Tarpon Springs Police Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021. Chief Jeffrey Young identified King, an 11th grader at Tarpons Springs High School, as the subject who was shot by police officers Saturday night after pointing an Airsoft rifle at passing cars and responding officers. Two Tarpon Springs Officers fired 12 rounds at King. King was later pronounced deceased at Bayonet Point Hospital. [ Tarpon Springs Police ]

Alexander King was pointing an airsoft pellet rifle at passing vehicles when police officers arrived at the scene and fired 12 rounds—seven from a patrol rifle and five from an agency handgun— killing the 17-year-old boy.

In a letter released Monday, Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bruce Bartlett says the Oct. 16 killing of Alexander King, 17, was justifiable homicide.

Tarpon Springs Police Chief Jeffrey Young said, “The two officers, in fear for theirs and the lives of others, fired multiple rounds each at the subject.”

The boy’s death follows a long line of incidents in which police have shot and killed people carrying toy weapons. According to The Washington Post’s police shooting database, at least 245 people have been killed by police while in possession of a toy gun since 2015.

Although half of the people shot and killed by police are White, Black Americans are shot at a disproportionate rate. Black people comprise less than 13 percent of the American population, but they are killed by police more than twice as often as White Americans. Hispanic Americans are also killed by police at a disproportionate rate.

Police say that because it is virtually impossible to train officers to identify imitation firearms from any distance, police have little choice but to assume the guns are lethal. Civil rights advocates argue police do not have a license to kill and should only discharge firearms when they fae an actual threat, not just a perceived one or a sense of fear.

They say that in most instances, a police officer has no more right to use deadly force than any other citizen because the Fourth Amendment should protect us all.

Police unions and some law-and-order conservatives insist that shootings by officers are rare and even more rarely unjustified. Civil rights groups and some on the left have just as quickly prescribed racial motives to the shootings, declaring that black and brown men are being “executed” by officers.

Journalists and academic researchers have pieced together a large quantity of data, but reporting by police departments is voluntary and many departments fail to provide consistent and accurate information.

Consequently, no one knows how many police shootings there are in any year and there is far less accountability than the deadly use of force should demand.

In 2015, The Washington Post began to log every fatal shooting by an on-duty police officer in the United States. In that time there have been more than 5,000 such shootings recorded by The Post.

An overwhelming majority of people shot and killed by police are male — over 95 percent. More than half the victims are between 20 and 40 years old.

The phenomenon of fatal police shootings involving people armed with air guns, toys or replicas, was last studied in depth more than 25 years ago, when Congress sought to address the problem of police shootings involving toy guns.

Experts who study the domestic market for pellet and Airsoft guns said consumer demand for replica firearms has grown.

On November 22, 2014, Tamir E. Rice, a 12-year-old African-American boy, was killed in a public park in Cleveland, Ohio, by Timothy Loehmann, a 26-year-old white police officer.

The incident was captured on video showing that Rice was carrying a toy gun but Loehmann shot him almost immediately after arriving on the scene, without warning.

“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.

“The distinguishing characteristic of policing is the authority to use force,” said Patrick V. Murphy, president of the Police Foundation, which published a book on deadly use of police force in 1982. “With this authority, of course, comes the responsi­bility never to misuse force.”

In 1992, the Department of Commerce prohibited the manufacture, sale, or shipping of toy guns unless they have an orange tip or are entirely brightly colored. The regulation does not prohibit end-users from modifying the toys.

In March 2018, Walmart announced that America’s largest single retailer would stop selling certain types of toy guns and it was removing items resembling assault-style rifles—including nonlethal airsoft guns and toys—from the company’s website.

The 1985 case of Tennessee v. Garner held that “the use of deadly force to prevent the escape of all felony suspects…is constitutionally unreasonable.”

Inherent in our legal tradition is the idea that any legitimate use of deadly force must be rooted in self-defense. It’s the same way that individuals can generally use deadly force to protect the life of a third party, say, if someone stops an assailant from killing someone else.

It’s all rooted in the fundamental idea that deadly force is only legitimate in preventing the death or destruction of innocent lives.

Since many jurisdictions allow citizens the right to own and carry firearms, there is no excuse for shooting children who are playing with toy guns. That is no excuse for lacking a parental responsibility for keeping kids safe, but it is certainly an argument against the ‘shoot first ask questions later’ attitude exhibited by some police.

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