U.S. Senators Call For More Prominent Markings on Toy Guns

Three Democratic U.S. Senators are calling on the Commerce Department to more effectively regulate look-alike firearms, a category that encompasses toy guns and other products whose appearance imitates a real weapon.

Current regulations only require that "toy" or "imitation" firearms be equipped with a "blaze orange plug inserted in the barrel" in order to help onlookers distinguish that product from an actual firearm.

In a letter to the Commerce Department and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission on Monday, Senators Bob Menendez, Ed Markey and Richard Blumenthal wrote that it is "past due time" to update the department's toy gun regulations, which date back to 1989.

The letter also notes that there are no current requirements governing the appearance of BB guns.

According to an analysis of The Washington Post's police shooting database by The Trace, 153 people holding toy guns have been killed by police since 2015, a figure noted by the senators in their letter. They also referenced a 1989 study which found that FBI recruits were effectively unable to distinguish between fake and real weapons in a two-second window of time, deciding to "shoot" toy-gun-wielders 95 percent of the time in a National Institute of Justice simulation.

The letter recalled a 1990 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics that surveyed different police officers about their self-reported abilities to distinguish between a fake and real weapon. Officers responded that they thought the orange markings were "ineffective," "ridiculous" and "ludicrous." One respondent said that the orange plug "won't make any difference."

A potentially troublesome development at the intersection of toys and firearms has received less public attention, but is being flagged by the senators as an area of concern for federal regulators: gunmakers licensing their designs to toy companies.

A report on the 2014 shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by law enforcement concluded that the toy gun in his possession was nearly indistinguishable from a real weapon "even to a trained eye."

The Trace reported that Rice's toy gun was manufactured by a French company that partners with Colt's Manufacturing, a gunmaker.

In anticipation of more cases like these, Monday's letter posits that "firearm manufacturers are looking for new and novel ways to target the younger demographic." And, the senators claim, as gun sales continue to fall, manufacturers may begin to pursue licensing deals with toy companies to expand their consumer base.

Police departments around the country have warned civilians about the hazards of purchasing toy guns for children. Officers argue that decisions about what level of force to deploy are often made in a split-second and that they are unable to distinguish between fake weapons and the real thing in that period of time.

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Two boys play with a toy gun and pair of toy handcuffs in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Getty/Robert Alexander