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When a Cleveland man called 911 on November 22, 2014, he described a guy with a pistol. The caller went on to say the gun was probably fake. The guy he was describing was actually a kid, 12-year-old Tamir Rice. The gun was a replica, a Colt 1911, an air pellet gun.
Earlier this year in Baltimore, police shot a 14-year-old who had a BB gun that looked like a real pistol. That teenager survived. But Jonna McKone of member station WYPR reports it drew new attention to what can happen when kids in high-crime areas carry such replicas.
JONNA MCKONE, BYLINE: Twelve-year-old Mannie Thames knows a lot of kids with BB guns. He says kids have them for safety and because they're cool.
MANNIE THAMES: Sometimes people get bullied a lot and they want something to protect their self. And sometimes people think it's cool. Like, they will just want to shoot people for fun.
MCKONE: He explains this in between bites of snacks at the afterschool center Penn North Kids Safe Zone in West Baltimore. I asked what his mother has told him about guns.
MANNIE: Don't play with no guns because they bad for you, and you can get killed by that.
MCKONE: But BB guns...
MANNIE: Yeah, I've been buying them sometimes.
MCKONE: But now he says since he heard about the boy who was shot...
MANNIE: Not going to buy one never in my life no more.
MCKONE: Asia Moss is in middle school. She says she was shot with a BB when she was younger, and she says the kids who are toughest have BB guns or pocket knives or Mace.
ASIA MOSS: They use it for protection, but some of them use it to be fun. And they use it to harm other people and think it's fun.
MCKONE: BB guns have sparked discussion among parents. Kim Shelton of East Baltimore says her son was used to playing with them. She's tried to change that, but a few months ago she saw her 11-year-old on the street with a BB gun.
KIM SHELTON: I was looking outside my window. And I ran downstairs, and I said to him, please, I don't ever want to see you playing with guns ever again because to me it looked like a real gun. I was hysterical.
MCKONE: Federal law requires toy guns to have a colored cap to show they're not firearms. BB guns, a type of air pellet gun, don't have that requirement. In Baltimore City, it's illegal for a minor to possess a BB gun. Still, state lawmakers are trying to ban the sale of so-called imitation firearms altogether. T.J. Smith of the city's police department says you have to consider the environment. In high-crime neighborhoods, officers often need to make decisions in seconds.
T J SMITH: When you have a realistic-looking gun that is down to the T and the only thing and the only way you know that it's different is by staring down the barrel of it - that's - sometimes going to be too late.
MCKONE: He points to several arrests where police have recovered a mix of actual firearms and replica guns and to a case where a suspect was carrying a real rifle that was pink.
SMITH: We're not talking about young people or adults that are going out to shoot a barrel of hay on several acres of land. We're talking about in environments where we see crime and where we see crime involving handguns.
MCKONE: Joe Murfin, a spokesperson for Daisy, the manufacturer that made the BB gun 14-year-old Colvin was carrying, says they come with warnings that adult supervision is required and that misuse of BB guns could cause serious injury or death.
JOE MURFIN: We also warn people not to brandish an air gun in public, that people may misunderstand what this is, and it could be a crime.
MCKONE: Still, those warnings can feel disconnected from inner-city realities. Ericka Alston directs youth services at the Penn North Kids Safe Zone. She bans even water guns.
ERICKA ALSTON: In West Baltimore, absolutely not - not here, not under my watch because regardless if pink bubbles are coming out or green slime, kids will still shoot to kill. It's still a gun.
MCKONE: She says it's also another way to teach kids that guns, whether they're real or not, and gun violence don't have to be part of their communities. Reporting in West Baltimore for NPR News, I'm Jonna McKone.
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