Democratic Senators Send Letter Urging Updates to Toy Gun Regulations

A trio of Democratic senators sent a letter Thursday to the acting chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) urging the agency to update rules governing the appearance of toy guns and nonlethal firearms, which can be mistaken by law enforcement for deadly weapons.

"It is past time for the Department to revise its toy and imitation gun regulations and for the CPSC to strengthen non-powder gun regulations," the letter says. "It is imperative that the CPSC find a path forward on updating" the standard for non-powder guns.

[Read the full letter below.]

The correspondence followed a June 10 letter that the senators—Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.)—had sent to the commission, an independent agency, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross about the need to update decades-old regulations concerning toys guns and nonlethal firearms, such as BB guns.

At present, regulations require toy or imitation weapons to be outfitted with a blaze orange plug in the barrel, alternatively allowing for the toy to be brightly colored. Non-powder guns are not currently subject to mandatory regulations.

The June letter noted a litany of studies showing that the current minimal requirements for toy weapons are ineffective for law enforcement in distinguishing them from lethal weapons.

A 1989 study found that FBI recruits were unable to differentiate between fake weapons and actual firearms in real time and "shot" individuals brandishing toys 95 percent of the time in a National Institute of Justice simulation.

Furthermore, a 1990 report from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics found that police officers thought orange markings were "ineffective," ridiculous" and "won't make any difference."

In 2014, Tamir Rice, 12, was killed in Cleveland after police officers responded to reports of a child brandishing a "probably" fake weapon. Rice, holding an airsoft gun, was shot dead by the officers after they arrived on scene. The officers claimed they thought the weapon was real, and a dispatcher apparently did not inform them the gun was likely a toy.

The CPSC's former acting chair responded to the June inquiry—which was led by Menendez's office—in September, noting that a standards-setting body, ASTM International, had attempted to update standards for non-powder weapons in January. The proposal, which would have called for bright green markings on the muzzle or barrel of such weapons, was voted down.

Menendez was chiefly concerned with implementing new, effective designs that would make it possible to distinguish each category of firearm—real, toy and non-powder.

Both Blumenthal and Markey sit on the key Senate Subcommittee on Manufacturing, Trade, and Consumer Protection, and Blumenthal serves as its ranking member.

Despite their nonhazardous function, toy and non-powder weapons have been involved in fatalities, according to a Washington Post database referenced by the initial letter. Around 166 people wielding toy weapons have been shot and killed by police since 2015, and 10 were children.

The letter noted what it described as a worrying trend among weapons makers that involves the introduction of firearm brands to children through product deals.

"As gun sales continue to fall, firearm manufacturers are looking for new and novel ways to target a younger demographic," the June letter said. "Licensing deals whereby firearm manufacturers allow their products to be reproduced as imitation guns are part of a broader strategy to market their products to children."

The Trace noted that licensing deals are "not uncommon" in the gun industry.

A 2016 report from the Violence Policy Center found that manufacturers were also turning to video games, another product aimed at children, as an avenue for marketing and brand awareness.

"In the competition for the recreation time of youth, video games are seen by the gun industry as both a threat to, and an opportunity for, marketing firearms to youth," the report says.

The CPSC said it would work with ASTM to address the issues raised in Menendez's initial letter, especially the proposal to update non-powder gun standards.

Airsoft rifles used for recreational sport are displayed on April 27 at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis. SETH HERALD/Getty