Toy Guns Pose Dilemma for Police

Amy Mevorach
Photographed here is a real gun and a toy gun.
Issue Date: 
December, 2018
Article Body: 

In the season of gift-giving, it may be tempting to buy toy guns for children who ask for them. Natick Chief of Police James Hicks says that could be dangerous. Makers of toy guns, he says, pride themselves on replicating the size and weight of real guns. “There is no way for officers to know.”
Hicks describes a fixation people have for the gun. During school safety visits, he says, “inevitably the question comes up about firearms.” Because police officers are allowed to carry guns in full view, students often ask, ‘What’s that on your waist?’ “I tell them they are handcuffs, and they say, ‘no that thing.’ I say it’s a two-way radio. Eventually, you have to come to it. I don’t point to it. I don’t glorify it. I just say it’s something we have to have in case there’s bad guys out, and move on to the next thing. I try to downplay it.”
Police training emphasizes de-escalation, using staged scenarios to practice conversation in the midst of a dangerous situation. In the imagined scenario of a child who is wielding a gun, Hicks says, “We will try to communicate first. We’ll get cover, talk it through, say, ‘Put it down. I’m as nervous as you are.’” Whether the gun is real or a toy cannot be assessed from a distance. “To them it may be a toy, but you don’t know if it’s a threat.”
Chief Hicks describes the first time he started carrying a gun. “It was different. I was not used to it.” Through training, he learned the mechanics of it, and how to aim and fire. “After two or three years on the job, it was kind of just there.” Then, finding himself in a darkened alley where someone had robbed a store, he says, “Then it hits you, this is serious. You have a decision to make with lifelong consequences. Once you fire, you can’t bring it back. You have a millisecond to make a decision. It becomes stressful.” In a low light situation, he says, if someone’s pointing a gun at you you’re going to react [by shooting]. That’s the only way you can react. It could lead to unfortunate tragedies.”
For the most part, Chief Hicks cites, they are not used. “Over 90% of officers go 35 years of their career without firing their weapon.” He has confiscated unlicensed weapons from vehicles, but in over seven years serving on the Natick police force, has not apprehended anyone who has fired a weapon.
Chief Hicks describes the challenge of vetting applications from prospective gun owners. “In Massachusetts as a licensing authority, I have to balance gun control versus the second amendment right to own firearms. I take that very seriously. As I evaluate those who apply, I have to use a little subjectivity regarding suitability. It’s not simple. It’s not black and white.” Hicks reviews the application, runs a safety check, and if the applicant has committed no documented crimes or incidents, he says, “there is no reason to deny them.” The police retain the right to suspend or revoke the license if any incidents occur after the initial check.
“In my personal opinion, there are enough guns out there. There are enough manufactured. Everybody has their point of view,” Hicks says. “The idea that the way you prevent gun violence is introduce more guns, I don’t understand that at all. When I hear about adding guns to schools, I don’t know how that prevents violence. I’m not there yet. You can’t have gun violence without guns.”
Natick’s annual gun violence vigil and forum will be held Wednesday, December 12 at 7PM at the First Congregational Church, to remember lives lost to gun violence. Following a brief outdoor vigil, the group will move inside for a discussion with Representative David Linsky.