BOSTON >> Boston's top cop, seated at a table strewn with imitation guns, urged Beacon Hill lawmakers Thursday to keep citizens and police officers safe by requiring replica firearms be made more clearly discernible from the real thing.
The push comes a bit more than a year after the high-profile 2014 fatal officer-involved shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland. A police officer responding to a report that a man was pointing a gun at people at a local park shot and killed Rice, who was holding a replica gun.
"Given the authentic look of all these guns, police officers have a real difficult time to distinguish what is real and what's not and our worst case scenario is what happened in Cleveland happening here in Boston," Boston Police Commissioner William Evans said. "We come upon too many incidents too many times where people have these type of guns, and fortunately my officers have used a tremendous amount of restraint and not used deadly force when it was clearly within their right."
Boston police took 174 replica guns off the streets in 2015, Evans said, and 179 in 2014. The replica guns are commonly used in commercial robberies, street robberies and other crimes, he said.
Evans testified before the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security in support of a bill (H 3476) filed by Rep. Daniel Cullinane, who represents parts of Boston and Milton.
"No consumer of these products — imitation, fake, toy, replica, whatever you want to call them — should ever be put in a situation in which their imitation firearm could be mistaken for a real gun," Cullinane said. "And no law enforcement officer should ever be put in the high-pressure situation where he or she is forced to make the split second decision to guess whether or not a firearm is real."
Cullinane said 28 people in 2015 were killed by police while holding a replica, BB or pellet gun.
The bill would require replica gun manufacturers to include a non-removable one-inch orange stripe to run along the barrel, handle and front of the gun so it "can be seen from every angle of this imitation weapon," Cullinane said.
"The law does not say that you cannot have an imitation firearm, it does not say that you cannot have one of these replicas," he said. "If a manufacturer wants to make or a retailer wants to sell a replica firearm in the commonwealth, that product should have markings on it to differentiate it from a real gun."
Cullinane's bill includes exemptions for replica guns used in movie and theater performances, and replica guns manufactured in Massachusetts but destined for export, he said.
Attorney General Maura Healey, Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry of Boston, the New England Police Benevolent Association and Mothers for Justice and Equality all offered either written or verbal testimony in support of the bill Thursday.
Boston Mayor Martin Walsh and the City Council late last year imposed a ban on replica guns in public spaces and gave police the authority to confiscate the items and bring them to the station for retrieval by an adult.
"In the atmosphere that we're experiencing now in communities of color in cities across the United States and across this great commonwealth between police and the community and the tensions that we have, this is not an atmosphere by which we would like to see young people carry replica guns and play with them at any place within the city," Rev. Jeffrey Brown of the Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury told the committee.
Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners' Action League of Massachusetts, said he hopes the bill does not pass, but said if it does it should include an educational component to teach children that even toy guns need to be treated with respect and should not be portrayed as real.
"One thing that we grow very weary of is it's always the thing's fault. If the thing was different this wouldn't have happened," he said. "They'll wring their hands and do something about the item but they won't address the core issue. Toy guns and BB guns have been around for a hundred years and there hasn't been a problem until now, and why is that happening?"
Though no one testified in opposition to the bill at the hearing, committee co-chair Rep. Harold Naughton asked the supporters to respond to a comment Wallace made in a Boston Globe article suggesting the legislation would be ineffective because criminals could add markings to a real gun to make it appear to be a fake.
Cullinane rejected that line of thinking as "designed to say, 'someone might do something so we should do nothing.'" He also noted that a criminal could, regardless of the legislation, try to make a real gun look like an imitation.
"I know they dismissed it, but if any law enforcement officer is going to tell me that in a dangerous situation he or she is going to relax their guard or hesitate because they saw an orange piece, I'm not buying it," Wallace told the News Service after the hearing.
Evans told the committee of a recent visit he and Walsh paid to the mother of a young man killed by a gun on Annunciation Road in Roxbury around the holidays. Visiting with the people who are directly affected by gun violence in the city, he said, helps put the gun control debate into perspective.
"If more people had to do that dirty job that we do, they would realize where we're coming from," Evans said. "As much of a toy people think it is, it's used very much like a real gun on the streets."