Tyre King is dead — and America still can't decide what to do about BB guns


Columbus, Ohio, police officer Bryan Mason shot and killed 13-year-old Tyre King Wednesday night. Mason and his fellow officers were responding to reports of an armed robbery, and saw King and two other individuals near the scene. 

King and the two individuals fled on foot. Mason and the officers gave chase. When the police finally cornered King and tried to detain him, he allegedly reached for his waistband — where he was carrying a BB gun — at which point Mason reportedly mistook it for real firearm and shot King multiple times.

By now, this story is tragically familiar. Tyre King is the third black person in Ohio in roughly the last two years to be killed by police who mistook a replica gun he was carrying for a real firearm — and he likely won't be the last. The first was John Crawford III, who was shot and killed at a Walmart in Beavercreek after picking up a pellet rifle off the toy shelf in July 2014. The second was 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was holding an airsoft gun at a Cleveland park in November 2014 when Officer Timothy Loehmann drove up to him and shot him.

Tyre King is the third black person in Ohio in roughly the last two years to be killed by police who mistook a replica gun he was carrying for a real firearm

No officer was charged for a crime in either case. Instead, both fueled the Black Lives Matter-led protest movement, which has rallied and organized individuals across the United States for much of the last three years to end anti-black state violence. 

But why does this type of incident keep happening? It seems absurd, considering the precedents, that lawmakers in Ohio have still not acted to make replica firearms easier to distinguish from real ones. Aside from magically ending police officers' hair-trigger fear of black boys, it seems the most logical solution to what is clearly an ongoing problem.

It would certainly be the easiest to enact. Federal law already requires some fake guns to have markers — such as orange barrel tips or other bright coloring — to distinguish them as not real. Meanwhile, some states, like New York, have taken their own steps to compensate for the loopholes and ambiguities in the federal law.

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But BB guns aren't required to be marked — under federal guidelines, functionally, they are considered real guns. And Ohio has no law regulating the sale or manufacture of replica firearms, including air guns, and lawmakers have failed to reach a consensus on what the right approach should be. 

That hasn't been for lack of trying. In 2015, Ohio Rep. Alicia Reece introduced House Bill 16 to the state legislature, which would have made the sale of unmarked, real-looking replica firearms a misdemeanor in the state. But the bill has gone nowhere. There's been disagreement over how effective it would actually be, but mostly, there's been no actual mobilization to get people enthusiastic about its passage. Reece was not available for comment at time of publication. 

In August, Ohio Rep. Rick Perales went so far as to argue that real firearms could easily still be disguised as replica ones, and vice versa, therefore the bill was effectively a lost cause.

"I don't see how public policy can affect this situation," he told the Yellow Spring News. "I don't think there's a quick fix."

"I don't see how public policy can affect this situation. I don't think there's a quick fix." — Ohio Rep. Rick Perales

Meanwhile, black boys like Tyre King are still dying. Police officers will likely continue to evade prosecution for their deaths, based largely on plausible deniability: the gun looked real, they will say, therefore they had to treat it as such.

Frankly, it's a hard claim to dispute. After Dedric Colvin, a 14-year-old black boy from East Baltimore, was shot while carrying a BB gun in May, the city's police commissioner, Kevin Davis, called a press conference where he displayed the BB gun the boy was carrying next to a real firearm. 

The reporters gathered at the presser couldn't tell the two apart.

"Indicative of [the] tough job we have," Davis said.

Photos have also circulated comparing the air gun Tamir Rice was carrying when he was shot to a real firearm. The resemblance is equally uncanny. In the end, requiring BB guns to be visually marked as a separate category from real firearms may not be the only solution to the entire problem, or even the best solution. 

But the alternative, for the time being, has been to not have a solution. That should be a lot harder for us to accept.

Sept. 15, 2016, 4:26 p.m. Eastern: This story has been updated to reflect the confirmed spelling of the shooting victim's name.