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News4Jax investigates the toy gun dilemma

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Not only are toy guns made to look real, but real guns are also being manipulated to look like toys.  It's something local police officers say they have to deal with every single day: not knowing if a gun is real or if it's a toy.

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"You know you think about this, think about walking down the street," said Cmdr. Chuck Mulligan, with the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office. "At 8, 9, 10 o'clock at night, maybe the street lights are on maybe they're not and you see a young individual and they have this [shows gun] placed in their waistband, its going to appear to be a real life fire arm."

Mulligan showed News4Jax a BB gun that looked like a real gun, confiscated from a 15-year-old who had it in his waist band while walking down the street.

"This is almost an exact replica of a Smith and Wesson .45 caliber," he said.

On local streets, he says that fake gun can be a recipe for trouble.

Police point to situations like the one in Palestine, Texas where body camera video dated May 31, 2015 shows  a deadly police involved shooting. (Warning: Video may be disturbing and YouTube requires you to sign in to confirm your age.)

The video, released by the Palestine Police Department, shows 47-year-old James Bushey leaving a restaurant bathroom. He allegedly stole beer from a nearby store. When police escort Bushey outside, you can see him pull out a gun. Police shot Bushey dead.  They later learned the gun Bushey had was fake.  It was an air gun that looked like a .45 caliber handgun.

There have been bills proposed in several states across the country, in an effort to make fake guns look more like toys.  They propose a number of things including adding more neon coloring, changing their shape and using clear plastic.

"There should be common sense gun laws in this country where all toy guns are made in primary colors for instance, and all real guns are regulated," said John Rosenthal, founder of Stop Handgun Violence.

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However, Mulligan showed News4Jax how criminals are already one step ahead.  He revealed a toy gun that was once a brightly-colored toy water gun, turned into a real-life shooting firearm.

"The individual then began to manipulate the plastic pieces, cut out designs and ports and actually installed in here a .50 caliber muzzle loader," he explained.

Right now, federal law say all fake guns must be made, displaying a bright orange tip at the end of the barrel. But even real guns are now being altered to give criminals an advantage.

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"Suspects will in fact paint the tips of their firearms orange in order to offer that delay system for the deputy or the officer who confronts them hoping that that officer will pause just long enough for them to get the first shot," warned Mulligan.

Mulligan pulled more than a dozen cases over the last year in St. Johns  County, ranging from an attempted suicide to domestic violence,  where deputies encountered a toy gun on the streets or during a call.

So, if legislation that would govern the use of fake guns is already being thwarted, Mulligan says, why not take the tactical toys, and play somewhere safe.

"Go to some established area where everyone in that arena knows that its a game and there's been security checks and protocols put in place to ensure that the folks there are safe," he recommended.

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He's talking about places like Battalion Airsoft Arena near downtown Jacksonville.  People can play opponents and race against the clock.  It's a race against the clock.  You shoot and try not to get shot, all while covering your teammates as they scramble to raise the team's flag. The tactical moves feel real and the Airsoft guns look real, but the rules and regulations are clearly posted. It's not all games, even the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office trains at Battalion, as well as some military.

Owner Chris Webster says he and three other fathers opened this arena about four years ago.

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"We don't really even condone playing in the neighborhoods, and so many people do. that's why we opened this place up so they would have a safe place to do this so they didn't have to do this in the streets or in the backyards," Webster said. "This kind of spun out of paintball - most everybody has heard of paintball before. Paintball has been around for a very long time."

VIDEO: Inside Battalion Airsoft Arena

As the play goes on below, there's a watchful eye from above.

"The refs control the games from these two towers, from this tower here and from this tower here and they start and stop the games, officiate safety from these areas because they can see everything," Webster explained.

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Navy Veteran Pedro Servano brings his youngest son to Battalion.  He uses the safe play to bond and have fun.

"He plays Xbox all the time and I kinda get him off Xbox and run around, you know its exercise its good exercise for him," Servano said.

But what about the temptation for kids to take what they do inside Battalion to the streets?

"Oh no, he disciplines me, he teaches me gun safety," said his son.

"I think training your son about guns at an early age is the best and knows how to respect it," Servano added.

Local firearms expert Rob Adams, with RK Tactical, says respect for the real thing is important with this realistic child's play

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"If you don't have a firm basis of what's right and wrong, that's what is going to lead you to do bad things. Now, the training that they are getting, going through and playing this everyday and that real life simulation of battle and confronting each other with firearms, that is making them more effective when they do that. That basis of teaching kids right from wrong which again starts from home with parents," said Adams.

He teaches local adults and children about firearms safety. He explained how criminals have blurred the line between fantasy gun play and reality.

"This is actually the real one [holds up one] this is a real Glock model 22  that police officers carry on the street and this is an Airsoft gun [holds up the other], something that you would find kids playing with that you can buy at the Airsoft store.

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Adams also explained the problem of real guns being altered to look more like a toy to give criminals the advantage. 

As an example, a real pistol that the suspect inserted into the plastic hull of a squirt gun. He also showed News4Jax an altered Super Soaker.

"So this is a Super Soaker squirt gun but its actually a real firearm. So what they've done is taking that outer plastic hull and put it over a real shotgun," Adams explained.

Local attorney John Phillips is a concealed-weapons license holder and gun owner. He also has a 3-year-old son.

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"It's a conversation that I need him to be ready to have and understand the responsibility. All right, this may be a toy , but this toy represents something that takes lives," explained Phillips.

Phillips has played a part in high-profile cases involving guns, including representing the family of Jordan Davis, who was shot and killed by Michael Dunn after an argument over loud music.

Phillips says America's obsession with firearms, real or fake, was obvious when he re-posted pictures on his law firm's Facebook page from a Tennessee police department.

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"These are all real guns made to look like toys," said Phillips.

Over three days, the 12 photos his firm re-posted had 4.6million views.

"I can see saying, 'A toy is just a toy, why are you making big deal out of this?' It's because we're training from toy guns, to PlayStation, games that even military minds have said are tactically great training grounds and fantastic for soldiers to learn on, in our homes. It's just a stepping stone for lack of respect for a firearm," said Phillips.

And it's the act of respecting the firearm that police say could save a life.

"When you give those orders to that individual to, 'Stop don't move' and the first thing they do is [pulls out gun from waistband] go, 'What, just a toy.' We have a very dangerous situation," Mulligan added.


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