Commentary

Gaspo: Have pellet gun, will travel

October 29, 2013 

TOM GASPAROLI

Remember that brazen Jared jewelry store robbery in June at the Renaissance Center across from Southpoint?

The one where an employee was kidnapped after she left the store about 11 p.m., was ordered at gunpoint to go back, and once there her assailants proceeded to seize some of the diamonds inside.

Police caught them soon after they left.

Imagine the terror the woman felt, a gun pointed at her as she held the keys to a small fortune. Her life seemed to hinge on the judgment of three young men shrewd enough to have identified her, watched her and mapped out the plan, and desperate enough to undertake such a big, bold crime in the first place.

And there’s this: I’m told the gun used to threaten the victim was not a firearm – it was a pellet gun.

Jim Dornfried, an experienced violent crimes prosecutor with Durham County District Attorney’s Office, is now seeing serious cases involving pellet guns.

“Some of them in these cases look so real,” Dornfried said. “Nine millimeter and 40 caliber replicas. They frighten victims the same as a real gun. They get the job done, believe me.”

There may be a reason this is happening. If police come across young men or women out and about and merely possessing pellet guns, there would likely be no crime, no punishment at all.

It’s also easier to legally buy a “non-powder” gun that looks almost exactly a firearm.

However, if people get pulled over with an illegal firearm, authorities are usually going to go after them hard. Minors are especially exposed. In most cases outside of hunting, they can’t possess firearms.

Dornfried is not advising current or future criminals about something they don’t know. It’s a pattern already, so the word’s out: you don’t need real bullets on hand to scare somebody still, and then get what you demand. No need to risk a few years in the pen getting caught for carrying an illegal firearm around.

“Fortunately, we do have the tools to use if they go ahead and commit the crime with a pellet gun,” Dornfried said. “It can definitely be a dangerous or deadly weapon in certain scenarios, and we can charge it that way.”

About a month before the Jared holdup, an 18-year-old and a 21-year-old were arrested on charges of assault with a deadly weapon, kidnapping and other crimes after allegedly walking up to a man outside a convenience store and forcing him to drive off.

When the carjacking victim saw a police car, he jumped out.

The gun used was a pellet gun. Dornfried said one of the men has pleaded guilty to a slew of serious crimes, including assault with a deadly weapon. He had pellet pistol-whipped the victim. He got seven to 10 years in prison.

In December, another arrest in Durham. Another 21-year-old. Charged with approaching a woman in her vehicle, robbing her of her debit card, and then forcing her to go back to her Garrett Road apartment, looking for more valuables. She was not injured, at least physically.

Yep: another pellet gun. The man was tried and convicted of multiple charges, including kidnapping.

Dornfried says some technical tests show that pellet guns can injure if fired from close enough. There’s all sorts of reasons to worry about them.

A major, much-loved big box store posts replica pellet guns or airguns for sale on its website. Why do they sell them, exactly? Why does anyone need a pellet gun that looks that real? To shoot BBs at a target? A tree in the backyard?

Federal law says replicas are supposed to have orange plugs in the barrel and various visible markings to indicate they are not real. Dornfried says he’s never seen them in his cases.

On one less prominent Internet site, I saw a chilling picture of an AK-47 Kalashnikov-shaped “Tactical Airsoft” replica rifle. And just a few days ago, a 13-year-old in California had a replica AK-47 assault style weapon in his hands walking through the neighborhood.

He ended up being shot and killed by police – they thought it was real. It’s happened before, and it will happen again.

At least two states, California and Michigan, have laws restricting general pellet gun possession by minors. Some municipalities are also trying to address the problem.

My review of North Carolina’s laws indicates it is a misdemeanor to have one of these pellet guns on school grounds. Unless I missed something, that’s it.

Elsewhere, pellet guns are virtually no problem. Until they are.

You can reach Tom Gasparoli at tgaspo@gmail.com or 919-219-0042.

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