Cautionary tale in police-involved shooting

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Back in July of 2020 I covered a story dealing with a police involved shooting. The event revolved around a person allegedly having some sort of a mental health episode and there were acts of self-harm involved. What made the situation turn deadly was that Timothy O’Shea, the person having the episode, was wielding an airsoft replica of a commonly owned Beretta handgun. A grand jury recently found that Morris Plains Police Sgt. Christopher Cornine should not have charges pressed against him for acting in self-defense against O’Shea after O’Shea pointed the airsoft pistol at him.

The original story on this had to do with optics in the media and the reporting of the event.

The Morristown Patch recently reported on a police involved shooting in New Jersey, but with an incredibly misleading headline that screams “Police Shot, Killed Morris Twp. Man With BB Gun: Attorney General.”…

What is also troubling is the headline touting the weapon used was a BB gun.  An airsoft gun is not a BB gun. Granted, they are both toys which potentially can be dangerous, but toys none the less. What makes this particularly bothersome, is that in the state of New Jersey, BB and pellet guns aren’t viewed as toys at all. In fact, they’re regulated as actual firearms, while airsoft guns are not.  This is not splitting hairs in a state like New Jersey.

In order to purchase a BB gun in the state of New Jersey, if it’s a rifle, one must first obtain a Firearms ID Card (FID). To get an FID, applicants need to submit to a criminal background check, get finger printed, obtain two character references, and then there may be issuance. With that FID, an individual can go to a Federally Licensed Firearms dealer, submit to another background check, in the form of a NICS, and then go home with their Red Ryder.

Buying a BB pistol? They are regulated as a handgun in the state of New Jersey, requiring a Pistol Purchasers Permit, background checks, the same process as an FID, but for EVERY pistol. Being treated as a gun by law, a BB pistol would need the bearer in the state of NJ to have a permit to carry in order to bear this “arm” in public on their person, or even in their car outside of exemption. Want to buy two BB pistols in NJ? You need two permits and two months, NJ only allowing residents to purchase one handgun a month.

There were a lot of semantics involved here, but that’s what we’ve been dealing with living as peasants to the crown of The Murph in New Jersey. This is important given the consequences, which can be exactly the same if we’re dealing with a toy, an airsoft gun, a real BB gun, or a real firearm.

Nearly two years later officer Cornine is cleared of the charges.

A state grand jury voted Monday not to file charges against a Morris Plains police officer for fatally shooting a Morris Township man. The 2020 incident put Morris Plains Police Sgt. Christopher Cornine under investigation for killing Timothy O’Shea, who pointed an airsoft gun at the officer, authorities said….

Authorities recovered O’Shea’s weapon and determined it was a replica Beretta 9mm airsoft pistol, the attorney general’s office said.

Most reasonable men would find this situation to be fairly cut and dry, with very little interpretation. However, the matter of police involved shootings in New Jersey has a stricter standard, for good reason, to be followed.

A 2019 New Jersey law requires the attorney general’s office to conduct investigations into deaths that occur during encounters with law enforcement or while in custody. The office must present each investigation to a grand jury, which determines if the evidence supports the return of an indictment.

The cautionary tale here has to do with the item that was possessed by O’Shea. An airsoft gun, which is a toy, and yes we could classify as a replica does look like a real firearm. The problems we run into is that the public at large, as well as any responding officers, can’t necessarily tell the difference between a real firearm and an airsoft gun (at a distance, I can’t).

This is not all to say that we need regulations, such as the toy gun law passed in New Jersey a few years ago, requiring a neon stripe to be alongside the entire toy. Not at all. This is to say we need to consider our behavior when owning and more importantly, giving these items away as presents.

The entire debate has to do with high profile police involved shootings and real looking toy/replica firearms. I’m also not advocating that we don’t allow our children to play with toy guns. I am however bringing up that we need to be very mindful of these dynamics in 2022.

Our police already have a stressful enough job to do. In 2022 those stresses are amplified by political, financial, and societal pressures. While this incident does not involve a child, it does cause me to think of the number of kids that may or may not have realistic toy guns out there. It’s our job to educate our children on these items/firearms and the potential ramifications.

A friend of mine, at about the time of the event being discussed, caught his teenage son with an airsoft pistol, and there was no known recitational activities that he was involved in to be in possession of it. This was not a situation where the youth was engaged in airsoft activities as a hobby, which is a very valid thing. The boy had no “excuse” for his possession. My friend came to me about this for advice, in particular because I’m a firearm trainer, and he wanted to stress to his son the grave potentials. My friend added emphasis to the situation to his son because they’re Black. Is that relevant? It was to my friend, so we can say yes. Unfortunately  this was not a difficult thing to educate his son on, all I had to do was send him a few articles and remind him he’s not obtuse to the ramifications of what he may or may not do with a realistic toy gun (inclusive and exclusive of his race and where he lived).

New Jersey’s law may have required the officer in question to undergo the grand jury process. Whether we’re dealing with a child, adolescent/teenage youth, or an adult, no one is immune from being thought of as a threat if they have one of these items. Use of imagination and playing games like cattle management officers and aboriginal Americans (Cowboys and Indians for your normal Americans) is a healthy part of growing up. The declaration that there are good guys and bad guys when one plays Cops and Robbers helps children understand elements of morality. However, we must be guarded and smart as the adults in the room. Just something to think about.

Stay safe out there and think before you do!