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Pellet guns giving police officers fits

March 22, 2006|by JENNIFER FITCH

WAYNESBORO, Pa. - "Which one is real?" Sgt. Mike Bock asked, waving his hand over a pair of guns on his desk in the Waynesboro Police Department headquarters.

Both were black and similar in size. One had silver accents. The other had chunky, metal components and a removable clip.

"Trick question," Bock said. "Neither."

Both were pellet guns that had been confiscated from people who used them for intimidation after hiding the elements that distinguish them from firearms, Bock said.

A cabinet just feet from Bock's desk housed even more of these modified pellet guns, which are legal for people 18 and older to carry in public, but police caution could come with deadly consequences.

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In one recent traffic stop in Waynesboro, the driver opened the glove box and revealed a gun. The driver didn't listen to officers' warnings to move away from the weapon, which officers later discovered was a modified pellet gun, Bock said.

Police pulled the driver out of the vehicle by his head.

"We commended the guys for not shooting (him)," Bock said.

He estimated the police department had six incidents since Jan. 1 in which officers confiscated pellet guns that had been modified to resemble firearms.

That typically means using paint, or even black marker, to conceal the colored barrels of pellet guns.

"They're supposed to have red tape on the end or red coloring or orange tips," Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Ed Asbury said.

While Pennsylvania doesn't have a law prohibiting an adult from carrying a pellet gun in public, a bill working its way through the state legislature would make it illegal to alter any "permanent distinctive feature, marking, coloration or device intended to distinguish an air rifle from a firearm."

The modification of pellet guns has been an ongoing issue for police.

"It's not a newfound problem, but it gets more ridiculous," Bock said.

"The replicas are that much better now," Asbury said. "They are unreal."

He said eight to 10 years ago, state police fatally shot a man who used a pellet gun for intimidation while raping a woman at the Comfort Inn in Chambersburg. Officers had encountered the man on the business' stairs and told him to drop the weapon, which he refused to do.

The Chambersburg Police Department has investigated armed robberies where the weapon turned out to be a pellet gun, Detective Will Frisby said.

"Sometimes we do get those used in crimes," he said. "Some wind up in schools."

On Jan. 13, a 13 year-old threatened fellow students using a pellet gun at a suburban Orlando, Fla., middle school. A SWAT team member shot the boy, who pointed the pellet gun at officers.

Police in Franklin County said many of the people carrying modified pellet guns are juveniles or young adults who often develop the attitude of "Hey, what's the problem? It's not real."

"I don't think they really understand the potential consequences of it," Washington Township Police Chief Barry Keller said.

Early in March, the Washington Township Police Department received a call about someone in a vehicle pointing a gun at passing vehicles. The person was "tracking" the other vehicles - following them with the weapon.

The incident spawned a police chase.

"If this kid would have pointed it at (an officer), he probably would have shot him," Keller said.

Police are within their rights to shoot "when officers think they're defending themselves or somebody else," Keller said.

Bock said young people might think they look tough while carrying modified pellet guns. However, acting tough around someone with a firearm could get them into a fatal altercation, he said.

He said a pellet gun was used in a Waynesboro robbery. Also, two young people recently were found in Kmart with pellet guns tucked into their waistbands.

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