Realistic nonpowder guns can create challenges for police

Although these weapons can look similar to real guns, the legal penalties can be very different


By Izabela Zaluska
The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Air rifles, BB guns and pellet guns are not considered firearms under Iowa law but sometimes have been used to commit crimes and mistaken as such by law enforcement officers.

Nonpowder guns use air pressure, carbon dioxide pressure or spring action — and not gunpowder — to launch projectiles.

"In addition to the dangers that can occur when nonpowder guns are fired, both nonpowder and toy guns can be dangerous because they may be mistaken for firearms — which can create confusion for law enforcement, and in some cases, lead to tragic results," according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Police shot 146 people between 2015 and 2018 who had nonpowder and toy guns, according to the center.

The Associated Press reported recent instances in Iowa, Illinois, Hawaii, Florida and Arkansas where an individual had an air rifle or similar gun that police mistook for a firearm.

In Waterloo, a police officer shot and paralyzed a man in April after the man pointed a pellet gun that looked like a shotgun at two Black Hawk County deputies. Marcelino Alvarez-Victoriano, who is now paralyzed from the waist down, filed a lawsuit in September against the unnamed officer and the city of Waterloo.

Iowa City

Locally, Iowa City police spokesman Lee Hermiston said, most of the problem incidents with air rifles, BB guns and similar guns involve property damage or minor injuries. Some of the department's street crimes investigators have seized these guns while executing search warrants, he added.

"These weapons do present a threat to public safety, largely due to how realistic some of them appear, making it difficult for an officer to tell if the weapon is a real gun or a toy," Hermiston said.

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An Iowa City police officer was shot and injured with a BB gun in 2019, and fired his service weapon at the woman.

Cierra Lewis shot at Officer Michael Clark several times with a BB gun, striking him once in his cheek. Clark returned fire with his handgun, firing five times and striking Lewis in her left hand.

Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness determined later that year that Clark acted with reasonable force.

Lewis pleaded guilty in July 2020 to assault on a peace officer, which is an aggravated misdemeanor, according to court records.

Potential changes?

State Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, said that when individuals use these types of guns to commit crimes, there can be "no penalty or very small penalties."

"If I go into a convenience store with a real gun and hold it up, I'm going to have fairly severe penalties," Bolkcom said. "If I go into a convenience store and hold up an air rifle, the penalties aren't as strict. If you're working at a convenience store, you can't tell the difference between the two because they look real."

Sen. Kevin Kinney, D-Oxford, a retired Johnson County sheriff's lieutenant, said he has come across these types of guns being used in robberies.

"One of the things even with air or pellet guns or so forth when there's a robbery or anything else when these guns are used they look like a regular gun and you can't charge somebody because they're not classified as a dangerous weapon," Kinney said. "I think it's something we should look at."

[NEXT: A firearms guide for police recruits and rookie cops]

(c)2021 The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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