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Two Major Retailers to End Sale of Toy Guns : Toys: Prompted by shooting tragedies, Toys R Us and Kay-Bee say they will no longer sell realistic-looking 'firearms.'

October 15, 1994|GEORGE WHITE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A string of shooting tragedies triggered by toy guns mistaken for the real thing prompted two of the nation's biggest toy store chains to declare Friday that they will no longer sell realistic-looking toy firearms.

Toys R Us, the world's biggest toy retailer, said it will quit ordering such products, and a second chain, Kay-Bee Toy Stores, said it will immediately begin to remove the toys from its shelves and destroy them.

While the two big retailers are not the first to do so, the decision by No. 1 Toys R Us marks a watershed in the debate over toy guns, analysts and others said.

"Heading into Christmas season, this action is the kiss of death for those who rely primarily on these guns for sales," said Jill Krutick, an analyst at Smith Barney. "If retailers won't carry the product, the manufacturers have no place to go."

Toys R Us, Kay-Bee, Wal-Mart, Kmart and Target account for more than 50% of all U.S. toy sales. Kmart said it stopped selling those toys 10 months ago and Target said it hasn't sold such products for years. Wal-Mart officials could not be reached.

Other retailers were reassessing their policies in what amounts to a victory for police and anti-crime groups that contend the look-alike "firearms" perpetuate a gun culture that endangers the nation's youth.

"What's happening is that corporations are starting to realize that they do have a measure of accountability concerning issues of violence," said Khalid Shah, president of the Stop the Violence Increase the Peace Foundation of Los Angeles.

Friday's announcements were triggered by a New York City case last month in which Nicholas Heyward Jr., a 13-year-old boy, was fatally shot in the stairwell of a housing project by an officer who mistook the youngster's toy for the real thing. Hours later, a second teen-ager was wounded under similar circumstances.

But they were only the latest of countless incidents across the country in which toy guns--some manufactured to appear frighteningly realistic, others painted or otherwise altered to fool robbery victims--have led to shootings.

"The recent tragedy of the Heyward family and other families lead us to believe that we can have a positive effect by removing toy guns from our stores, " said Ann Iverson, president of the Kay-Bee chain.

The use of toy guns by youngsters, criminals, the mentally unbalanced or others has become commonplace. As recently as Aug. 4 in Los Angeles, a man on a street corner brandishing what turned out to be a toy gun was shot and killed by police.

In a poignant 1983 incident in the Orange County community of Stanton, a police officer who entered an apartment looking for a child reported missing from school shot and killed a five-year-old boy who pointed a toy gun at him.

"From just even a short distance they look like a real gun," said Officer Rigo Romero, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department. "There is really no way to tell until you are able to hold it and feel its weight and tell that it is plastic."

A 1992 federal regulation requiring the toys to carry markings such as a brightly colored tip on the barrel has been foiled by customers who paint over them or modify them to create a more realistic appearance, according to Toys R Us, which declared that "more drastic measures are now called for."

Toy R Us said it plans to sell those toys now on its shelves but will not purchase such items in the future. Kay-Bee and Toys R Us said they will continue to offer certain kinds of water pistols and other toy guns more clearly identifiable as toys. Such products are often produced in bold colors such as red and yellow.

The moves by the two firms surprised some toy industry leaders who thought the issue had been settled by the 1992 federal regulation, said David Miller, who heads Toy Manufacturers of America, a New York-based trade group.

"Toys R Us and Kay-Bee are doing something that is within their discretion, and we respect that," Miller said. "However, the manufacturers of these toys are not doing anything illegal. . . . This is a lawful product that many children enjoy."

Retail sales of toy guns--including water guns--bring in about $327 million a year, or just 2% of all toy sales, according to the trade group.

Not surprisingly, Chicago-based Strombecker Corp., one of the nation's leading producers of gun look-alikes, took sharp issue with the retailers' decision. Myron Shure, chairman, noted that retailers continue to sell other products, such as some interactive video games, that feature violence. Strombecker, which calls itself the nation's oldest toy company, produces such items as the American West silver-colored revolver under its Tootsie label.

"We are an easy target," Shure said. "They found an easy way to ease their conscience by eliminating a small part of the market."

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