Toy guns, especially those made to resemble their more dangerous counterparts, can cause just as much fear and danger as the real thing.
But terrorizing their neighborhood and being confronted by a police officer is often the last thing a child thinks about when he's running about with what he considers a toy.
freshman Jordan Tomagko, 14, plays with his replica M-14 with his neighborhood buddies, and thanks to the and its School Resource Officers, Tomagko is familiar with the fear a toy gun can cause and takes appropriate precautions.
"It's a serious thing, a dangerous thing," he said. "It can scare people."
Police chiefs, school officials and Fairfax families came together Friday morning in Fairfax City to warn about the dangers of replica guns.
"Replicas are manufactured plastic or synthetic projectiles. Some can fire pellets by compressed air and can inflict serious injury and damage to property," said Fairfax City Police Chief Rick Rappoport. "But the greatest danger is when others perceive replicas as weapons and as threats."
Northern Virginia chiefs and sheriffs placed about a dozen real and replica weapons on a table to show how difficult it can be to distinguish between the toy and the real thing. Though some replicas feature a tell-tale orange cap at the end of the barrel, that's not always the case.
Because the real and fake weapons appear so similar, criminals have used replicas in their crimes. Replicas allow criminals to escape the additional prison time tacked onto crimes when committed with the use of firearm. Arlington County Police Chief Doug Scott and Fairfax County Police Chief Dave Rohrer said robbers in particular will modify replica weapons to remove the bright orange tell-tale tips or paint them black. They then threaten store owners with the fake guns, achieving the same fear they'd get if using a real weapon.
Children who carry replica weapons can cause the same kind of fear. And Replica guns, known in Virginia code as pneumatic guns, don't carry the same restrictions as real firearms.
Leesburg Police Chief Joe Price referenced a January Texas incident in which a middle school student armed with a BB gun that resembled a Glock semiautomatic handgun. The student was fatally shot by police when he refused to put down the weapon.
"Officers are trained to look at movements, not objects," Price said. He added that a trained officer's reaction time is so fast that there's little chance to notice the replica.
And any hesitation can mean the end of a police officer's life.
In 2011, for the first time in 15 years, more officers were killed by firearms than in traffic accidents, Rappoport said. Since these replicas look like real guns, officers are trained to treat them as such.
Tomagko and his friends use caution when playing with replicas, he said. They stay in the backyard, wear safety goggles to protect their eyes and aim low, to lessen the likelihood of firing a pellet at a vehicle or home, or into someone's face.
Principal Scott Poole emphasized the need for schools and police departments to work together in educating children about the dangers of replica weapons.
SRO Mike Murphy said he teaches children to use their replicas while under supervision at safe, designated environments like shooting ranges and paintball play areas. He stressed that if approached by a police officer, they should follow all directions and put their replicas down.
For more on pneumatic guns, click here.