Aposematism and toy guns

Another person has been shot in the US because he was brandishing a toy gun.

Police hit the 32-year-old man three times Sunday evening after he pulled from his waistband what was later determined to be an air gun, which fire metallic projectiles such as pellets or BBs, police spokesman Albie Esparza said.[…]

The air gun did not have a colored tip on it, which is a standard identifier of a toy gun, Officer Gordon Shyy said Monday.

Actually, this wasn’t even exactly a “toy”. More, a sublethal weapon. I’m generally not the most sympathetic to police officers who kill the citizens they are supposed to be protecting. (In Utah last year police were the leading category of homicide perpetrators.) And the case of the boy who was shot on a playground because he had a toy gun clearly seems tinged with racism. But I can’t blame the problem on a lack of coloured tips on the gun.

Surely a brief thought about warning colours and mimicry in nature suggests that a strategy that says “a red tip means the police don’t need to worry about this otherwise very dangerous-looking weapon” can’t be viable. It’s too easy to mimic the signal and gain the advantage (lessened police response to your weapon). This is not quite the same as aposematism — advertising ones inedibility to predators through defensive colouration — but the general problem of cheap signals undermined by mimicry is the same.

The problem isn’t, too many toy guns without coloured tips. It’s too many real guns, and too many toy guns, or, at least, too many toy guns that could be mistaken for real guns, with or without coloured tips.

The police, in a country where firearms are broadly legal, should have strategies for dealing with possibly armed individuals of unknown intentions that don’t so often escalate into lethal pistol barrages. And the fact that they seem so much more successful in applying these strategies when the individuals are white — even white gun nuts parading around with weapons — is a valid cause of grievance. But basically, no one should be manufacturing toy guns, or giving them to children; at least, not in a country where there are so many real guns for them to be confused with. You can’t blame the police for treating every gun simulacrum as a real gun, however it is coloured.

I am glad to be living in a country where there are very few guns around, and the average police officer can’t shoot someone accidentally. I’m particularly glad to have my children growing up and going to school in such an environment.


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