There’s a famous story about bank robber and all-round bad guy John Dillinger. Locked up, he carved a gun from a bar of soap (or a piece of wood) and used it to bluff his way out of jail in Crown Point, Indiana, returning to his previous life of crime (with real guns, naturally) until he was set up and shot dead by good men with guns.
It’s almost as if the firearm has no moral agency of its own, but takes on the purpose of the man wielding it, eh? But we digress.
The Dillinger story was always denied by the guards on duty, who swore that the gangster had a real gun. Given the usual human levels of ingenuity (on the one hand) and cupidity (on the other), it wouldn’t have been the first time a gun found its way into jail — or the last. As long as prisons have human guards, convicts will bribe or blackmail their way out, and contraband of all kinds will flow in; control measures are never fully effective. But the Dillinger story, if you take it at face value, illustrates something else: when criminals can’t get guns, they’ll use substitutes.
We’re unaware of more recent data, but a comprehensive study in the 1980s found that a significant percentage of violent crime is committed with phony firearms already (emphasis ours).
Between January 1, 1985 and September 1, 1989, 458 police departments (65.5% of the study population) reported 5,654 robberies known to be committed with an imitation gun. Robbery investigators interviewed estimated that, on an average, 15% of all robberies were committed with imitation guns.
In the same time period, police departments reported 8,128 known assaults with imitation guns.
One hundred eighty-six police departments reported 1,128 incidents where an officer warned or threatened to use force and 252 cases where actual force had been used based on the belief that an imitation gun was real1.
This is reiterated elsewhere in the report:
A somewhat curious occurrence has been the use of imitation guns in robberies. The data on these crimes indicate that this occurs more frequently than one may generally assume. For example, in Houston, a review of reports indicates that on the average at least two robberies a month are known to have been committed with an imitation gun, with the actual number of imitation gun robberies assumed to be higher. A robbery investigator in King County, Washington estimated that 10%-15% of the approximate 200 robberies he investigates each year were committed with imitation guns2.
Results from the survey show that robberies by imitation guns are occurring on a daily basis in the United States (see Table 1/Figure 5)3.
Despite the survey findings, the researchers infer, based on what was learned during the site visits, that more robberies are committed with imitation guns than the data show. On an average, robbery investIgators consIstently estimated around 15% of the robberies were committed with guns that were toys, pneumatic, replicas, or starter’s pistols4.
Newark robbery Detective Barry Colicelli, who is also President of the New Jersey Robbery Investigators’ Association (NJRIA), has been tracking rob- committed by toy guns sznce 1984. Detective Colicelli and his NJRIA colleagues con- cluded that at least 15%-20% of their robberies are committed with imitation guns5.
This phenomenon has led many jurisdictions to ban deactivated, replica, and even toy guns, and has led to laws requiring replica guns to have bright noses, like the (we are not making this up) Federal Energy Management Improvement Act of 19886.
The orange-nose law has been worthless. Officers can’t trust that a flash of orange isn’t just a glimpse of a sight insert, or a Krylon rattle-can job by a criminal on his real gun. And criminals seeking to intimidate with a toy gun are only a can of Krylon away from a realistic “weapon.”
The various Beltway J.D.s and M.B.A.s who worked on the study were entirely taken aback by that. Most of them apparently consider the pinnacle of manual dexterity to be flushing your own toilet instead of leaving it for one of the servants to do. It never occurred to them that someone could simply spray paint the gun, as testers would discover:
They taped half of each weapon with masking tape in order to compare the painted side with the manufactured sIde. The researcher’s six-year-old son was given black spray paint and told to “paint the gun.” …The appearance of both toys was dramatIc wIth the painted side making the guns look real even in daylight conditions7.
Who would have imagined that?
We came across this study while wondering about the strange case from last year in Palestine, Texas that we recently discussed here. In that case, a thief pulled a fake gun on cops, collecting a dead body full of bullets as his reward. That seems irrational, but the 1980s study reported many more instances. For example:
In response to a call in midafternoon they observed a man in his mid-twenties with a gun in the parking lot outside one o f the housing areas. The officers pulled their patrol car near the man, got out and ordered the man to drop the gun. The man just stood there and looked at them. The officers ordered-almost pleaded-with the man to drop the gun. Suddenly, the man raised the gun, lunged toward them, and screamed. Both officers immediately fired.
As the officers approached the downed man, a person came running out of one of the apartments shouting, “He’s mentally retarded, the gun’s a toy, the gun’s a toy.” It was determined that a shot from the female officer’s gun struck the man in the head killing him immediately. She remains on psychological disability leave and will most likely not be able to return to duty. The male officer returned to duty after about ter [sic] days. On the first day he returned to duty he responded to a “man with a gun” and probable assault call — it turned out to be a juvenile with a replica gun8.
The officers were frisking a man when a woman walked up and told them that the man did not have any drugs. At that point the woman pulled out what appeared to be a chrome-finished semi-automatic pistol and pointed it at a female officer. Another officer, who was standing within five to ten feet told, the woman to drop the gun. She did not move the weapon and the officer shot her. It was later determined the gun was a metal toy9.
One deputy, armed with a shotgun, looked around a corner and saw a person approaching with a weapon in hand that appeared to be a “Desert Eagle” automatic pistol. As the man approached, the officer yelled and ordered the man to drop the gun. Instead, the man turned, assumed a shooting position, and appeared to fire at the officer. The deputy fired the shotgun, spinning the man around. The man turned back in a shooting position again and the deputy fired a second shotgun round, killing the man. As the officer approached the downed man, he kicked the gun out of his hand and “heard the sound of plastic.” At that point the deputy learned the gun was a toy and that the man had been playing “Laser Tag.” Because of the psychological trauma of this incident, the deputy, a seven-year veteran with a good service record, remains on disability leave and will probably not be able to return to duty. In addition, two trained reserve deputies who responded to the call at the school, resigned their commissions as a direct result of the trauma of this incident10.
There are more examples, if you care to Read The Whole Thing™.
The last case above seems to be caused by the tag-players thinking the cops were more players. But other cases, where fake-gun-armed criminals take on cops with real guns in a forlorn hope version of quick-draw, are no less tragic but rather more puzzling.
It turns out that there’s even a psychological (or, perhaps, pop-psychology) explanation of sorts for that kind of irrational behavior by faux-gun “armed” criminals.
Robbers appear to have some form of psychological dIsplacement about the realism of a toy gun. is if the gun is similar. to a real weapon, the seeJ?s to adopt a feehng of power and manipulation as If the gun is real. This gives the thief more confidence him/her to control the robbery more firmly despIte the fact the gun is an imitation11
Well, that’s fine and good until Deputy or Officer Friendly centerpunches you with a fine collection of jacketed hollow points.
Of course, since crime is an irrational career at every level, perhaps we’re wasting our time trying to understand one particular irrational decision in a criminal’s life of irrational decisions.
The study does suggest two circumstances under which using a phony gun is a rational decision for a criminal (neither of these being “in a gunfight with police,” naturally). Those are:
First, the thief believes that use of an imitation gun may mitigate punishment if he/she is captured and charged with the crime12.
As bizarre as it sounds, this is actually true in some jurisdictions. In others, the criminal is simply mistaken in this belief. And…
The reason a robber may use a toy is because the thief, for some reason, cannot obtain a real gun13.
That an individual unable to obtain a desired item would select a substitute item is what got Captain Obvious his Nobel Prize in Economics, but it apparenly was a real epiphany to Beltway JDs, PhDs, etc., in 1990… and probably would be today, again.
Criminals have displayed remarkable ingenuity at routing around gun restrictions like the Internet routes around damage (or censorship). This makes sense when you realize that they are highly motivated to arm themselves, producing a sort of distributed criminal quartermaster function that is highly antifragile and resistant to disruption by conventional and even extreme law enforcement attack.
- Carter et al., Toy Guns: Involvement in Crime and Encounters with Police. pp. vii-ix.
- Carter et al., op.cit. p. 27.
- Carter et al., op.cit. p. 28.
- Carter et al., op.cit. p. 28.
- Carter et al., op.cit. p. 28 sidebar.
- codified at 15 CFR §1150.
- Carter et al., op. cit. p. 38.
- Carter et al., op. cit. p. xi sidebar.
- Carter et al., op. cit. p. 7.
- Carter et al., op. cit. p. 8.
- Carter et al., op. cit. p. 28.
- Carter et al., op. cit. p. 27.
- Carter et al., op. cit. p. 28.
Carter, David L., Sapp, Allen D., and Stephens, Darrell W.. Toy Guns: Involvement in Crime and Encounters with Police. Washington, DC: Police Executive Research Forum, 1990. Retrieved from: http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/tg-icep.pdf