Police in Texas say more crimes are being committed with imitation weapons like BB guns, likely because they're cheap, easy to obtain and criminals may believe -- mistakenly -- that if they're caught, they'll avoid the severe punishment that can come with illegally possessing a real one.
Police Lt. Christopher Cook in the Dallas suburb of Arlington says his officers are being told by arrested suspects of their preference for the imitation weapons. They can be purchased for as little as $25 and no background check is required.
But if the victim of a crime in Texas believes a weapon pointed at them is real, that's enough to warrant a first-degree felony charge -- and a maximum sentence of life in prison. New Jersey has a similar law, though the punishment is less harsh, while others states, including California, draw a greater distinction between real and imitation weapons.
Arlington police this year have seen at least half a dozen instances where gang members were found in possession of a BB, air, toy or some other kind of imitation gun, Cook said. Officers have also responded to at least five armed robberies where the suspect was armed with one. In the most recent case, police caught a teenager Thursday night who robbed an Arlington store using an imitation handgun, he said.
Houston police say they, too, have seen a rising use of imitation weapons that peaked a couple of years ago, spokeswoman Jodi Silva said.
"They're easily accessible and they're cheap," Silva said.
John Convery with the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association said he hasn't heard of many court cases involving defendants found with a fake weapon. But he noted that many Texas residents are licensed to carry handguns, so it could be life-threatening to commit a crime while brandishing a weapon, fake or real.
"If it looks like a gun and acts like a gun," he said. "The victim is going to believe it's a gun."
Cook noted that officers have fired on armed suspects who they later learned were carrying an imitation gun. Earlier this month in El Paso, police fatally shot a man after he ran toward them waving what turned out to be a BB gun.
"There's no training in the world that will allow officers to make split-second decisions on the difference between real guns and fake guns," Cook said, adding that his department may lobby for a state law that places restrictions on imitations firearms.
"We just don't believe there's a legitimate reason to manufacture them in a way that makes them look so real," he said.
Cleveland officials last month reached a $6 million settlement in a lawsuit over the death of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black boy shot by a white police officer while playing with a pellet gun outside a recreation center. The pellet gun, which Tamir borrowed from a friend, was missing the orange tip that federal regulations require on imitations to distinguish them from real firearms.
"All they have to do is pull the little orange cap off and it's very realistic," Silva said.
Some states have imposed stiffer restrictions. New York announced in December that 30 online retailers had agreed to stop selling realistic imitation guns in the state, where a law requires that fake or toy guns be brightly colored or have colored striping down the barrel. California adopted similar measures in 2014.
Ten other states, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. also have passed legislation regarding imitation firearms, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Texas is not among them.
Many manufacturers of imitation weapons are based abroad. One of the largest in the U.S., Daisy Outdoor Products, didn't respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press. One of the largest U.S. distributors, Jag Precision, also didn't return a message. Manufacturers often include disclaimers warning against misuse or any unauthorized alterations.