Police often unable to discern pellet guns from lethal weapons
The pellet gun that police said Odell Brown pointed at a sheriff's deputy, who then fatally shot him.
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Odell W. Brown's mother told him to get rid of his realistic pellet gun just days before an Allegheny County sheriff's deputy fatally shot him, believing the weapon he liked to use for target practice was an authentic semi-automatic pistol.
"She just told him that for someone who was 19 and wanted a [future] in criminal justice, it was inappropriate," said his grandmother, Joyce Stevens. More than that, his mother feared he would be hurt or killed because "the thing about it is, when you look at the thing, you think it is real."
The pellet gun looked so similar to some of the most popular handgun models that witnesses who called 911 Wednesday morning reported that an agitated Mr. Brown was pacing the 500 block of North Euclid Street with a gun in hand. Responding officers had no idea it was anything but a lethal weapon. So when Mr. Brown raised the pellet gun and pointed it at Deputy Sean Green, Pittsburgh police said, the deputy opened fire, fearing for his life. The lone shot from his patrol rifle hit Mr. Brown in the chest, killing him.
The shooting confirmed Mr. Brown's mother's worst fears and underscored the dangers that await those who brandish realistic-looking BB guns and pellet guns.
Police officers nationwide have shot suspects they believed were armed with actual firearms only to learn the weapons were striking facsimiles. In one troubling case earlier this year, police fatally shot a 15-year-old eighth-grader in Brownsville, Texas, who aimed a BB gun resembling a Glock at them.
"If you're going to carry a look-alike firearm and misuse it, you put yourself at risk for harm or death," said Pittsburgh police Lt. Kevin Kraus, whose homicide detectives continue to investigate Mr. Brown's death. He would not say how Mr. Brown acquired the weapon, citing the pending probe.
Markings on the pellet gun indicate it was one manufactured by the Bloomfield, N.Y.-based Crosman Corp., which sells similar models on the Internet for as little as $60. Observers said it mimics semi-automatic pistols by Sig Sauer and Kel-Tec and appeared to have a large caliber. It has a serial number etched into the side and, invisible from a distance, a warning that it is "not a toy" and "can cause fatal injury."
"This gun in particular has all the characteristics of a real firearm," Lt. Kraus said. "There's no way you can tell."
Sheriff William Mullen declined comment Thursday but said after the shooting that Deputy Green, a 14-year-veteran, and other officers did not know the gun fired only pellets until investigators handled it after the shooting. It was being processed as evidence Thursday.
To a police officer faced with a split-second decision in a life-or-death scenario, the difference doesn't always matter. Officer David Wright, the Pittsburgh police academy's lead defensive tactics instructor who reviews incidents in which city officers use deadly force, said police are trained to act on what they know at the time of an encounter.
"They use the force to stop the threat. Anything that's found out after the fact is irrelevant as long as the officer was under the reasonable belief that the individual had a firearm in their hands," he said. "The police don't have time to sit there and try to figure out whether that's real or not real."
Four people die each year in the United States from incidents involving pellet or BB guns, according to the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission, which estimates that such guns cause about 14,700 hospital emergency room visits annually.
But that number doesn't include police shooting people armed with air guns. Few organizations, if any, collect that data.
Pittsburgh city ordinances bar the carrying of facsimile firearms to "terrify, alarm, threaten or intimidate any person."
Police said that hardly stops criminals from using them on the streets. This week alone, Pittsburgh police arrested two teenagers who they said snatched a woman's purse outside a Squirrel Hill Giant Eagle while armed with a pellet gun, and Ambridge police said a man held up a bank with a similar air weapon.
Ms. Stevens said her grandson liked to practice target shooting with the gun because he wanted to become a police officer himself. Mr. Brown's mother suspected he was armed with a pellet gun, rather than the real thing, when Ms. Stevens called her Wednesday morning to tell her he was distraught over a break-up.
First Published June 15, 2012 12:00 am