For the lifeguards at Huntington Beach State Park, the radio report on July 27 was more disturbing than if tall fins had been spotted churning through the surf. A frightened family had rushed to lifeguard tower No. 12, saying that an oddly dressed man was roving the beach with an assault rifle.
The lifeguards, who double as armed peace officers, anxiously picked their way through the thick mat of sunbathers, finally spotting the suspect: a 21-year-old man in full camouflage and combat gear, accompanied by what appeared to be an armed woman.
Lifeguard supervisor Kenneth Kramer said he and three fellow officers followed the suspects to a restroom, then moved in, shouting: "Drop your weapons!" The suspects complied. After frisking them, the lifeguards examined their rifles--plastic "look-alike" squirt guns. The couple, who were not charged, were participants in a new pastime in which beach-goers wage water gun battles on the sand.
Last Sunday, in a parking lot outside the Laguna Hills Mall, another scene unfolded. A 21-year-old man pointed what appeared to be a handgun at two CHP officers responding to reports of a gun-toting man behaving erratically and threatening passers-by. After repeatedly warning the man to drop his gun, one CHP officer opened fire, seriously wounding the man in the chest and arm. Officers later discovered that the gun was a Crossman pellet gun, a replica of a government-issue Colt .45 that sells at sporting goods stores for about $50.
These types of incidents have law-enforcement agencies throughout California up in arms over the increasing use of look-alike guns--weapons that include a wide range of inexpensive toys, replica air and pellet guns, and non-firing replica or "counterfeit" guns specifically marketed for gun collectors.
Last month, the Anaheim City Council unanimously passed an ordinance outlawing the threatening use of fake guns. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department will propose legislation concerning the guns this fall, and the peace officers who patrol the state's parks and beaches are determined to ban look-alike guns from their turf altogether.
Squirt guns have been a fad on beaches for the past couple of summers, Kramer said. The latest versions duplicate everything from .357 magnums to Israeli Uzi automatics, and lifeguards have filled boxes with toy guns confiscated in confrontations.
Last summer, for instance, a young aide at an entrance station locked herself in a bathroom after frantically reporting that a man waiting to enter the park had threatened another motorist with a handgun. Twelve officers responded and "drew down" on the suspects, pulling them from their car and handcuffing them. The weapon was a look-alike cap gun, Kramer said.
On the same day as the Laguna Hills Mall incident, state lifeguards questioned a man with a look-alike Mac 10 automatic pistol, and Huntington Beach police later pulled over a car after seeing one of the occupants brandishing a fake pistol, Kramer added.
"I'm a certified firearms instructor, and I've been trained in identifying firearms," Kramer said. "But up close or from a distance, they look identical to real weapons."
"I don't think there's an officer who can't tell you a story (about confronting a suspect who wielded a look-alike weapon)," said Officer Ken Daily, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol's San Juan Capistrano office.
A few years ago, Daily and his partner chased down a drunk driver on Interstate 5. "As I was approaching the driver's side, he suddenly reached into the back seat. I glanced in and saw him reaching for an M-1 carbine. . . . As it turned out, it was a " 'Spittin' Image' BB gun," Daily said. "He said he suddenly remembered it and didn't want me to think it was the real thing."
If Daily hadn't been able to jerk open the rear door and grab the gun, which the man appeared to be aiming, "I probably would have had to shoot," Daily said.
On another occasion, a passenger in a stopped car that Daily was approaching jumped out clutching what looked like an automatic pistol. "I immediately drew down on him. . . . It was a little squirt gun. Looked just like the real thing. He said he'd forgotten he had it in his hand. Ten feet away from someone, especially when it's dark, you can't wait till he fires to decide if it's a real gun or not--then it's too late for you."
Jack Roggenbuck, chief of visitor services for the state Department of Parks and Recreation, warns that officers must assume "a worst-case scenario" when they approach a seemingly armed suspect, and that they are trained to shoot the moment a suspect appears to be aiming a gun. But Roggenbuck worries that as police encounter more and more toy guns, there's a danger that they will begin to "drop their guard."