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Some thoughts on using toy guns

(ran W E editions)

The plight of the 18-year-old Spring Hill youth arrested last week for pointing a toy gun at an off-duty Sheriff's Office dispatcher raises some interesting questions about when playful conduct becomes stupid and when stupid conduct becomes criminal.

It would be nice if the lines were more clearly drawn.

Toy guns are made to be pointed at people.

We may date ourselves by the nature of our fantasies, but very few childhood gun games are centered around target practice.

In my neighborhood, I always had to be the American Indian, Japanese, German or North Korean in our games, because those were the standard enemies in the fictional fodder of the day, and I had a certain flair for the dramatic that made me die better than my counterparts.

(In retrospect, I'm rather proud of that distinction. Those roles were a stretch for a chubby blond kid with blue eyes and an overbite.)

So, at what point does pointing a toy gun, or engaging in other similar activities, become really dumb, and at what point after that does it become criminal?

Some of that remains to be settled in court, but there are some good rules of thumb to follow.

It is a very bad idea to point a toy gun at anybody who might think it is real. It is, at best, anti-social because it will upset them and may be criminal if it puts them in reasonable fear of death or bodily harm.

It becomes extremely stupid when you point it at somebody likely to be near or carrying a real gun, which, alas, today, is apt to be just about anybody.

The red tips on realistic-looking toy guns and the bright colors of toy guns designed to look unrealistic are steps in the right direction _ in ideal lighting around people with good judgment and excellent color perception. The red tips may do you no good if you pull your dumb stunt on a person who believes that reaction time measured in microseconds can be the difference between life and death.

Among the acts that qualify as dumb in this context are: getting out of your car after a high speed chase, confronting a police officer in a dark alley after a domestic dispute or when making a withdrawal from the bank.

I have a co-worker who keeps a fairly realistic-looking cap pistol on her desk that she occasionally fires at me as a way of expressing mild displeasure over something I have said, done or left undone.

Now we are wondering how that may be perceived by any of the several police officers who often have reason to visit our floor in the office building we share with several other businesses. We can almost see ourselves being surrounded by a SWAT team, because I forgot to turn off the coffeepot the night before. There's a time and a place for everything, and the time and the place for playing cute gun jokes ended about the time we made blowing each other away a national pastime.

I learned the hard way 20 years ago that airport security folks have a sense of humor that ranks right up there with those of the Secret Service, anti-vivisectionists and newspaper editors.

I merely asked where the tote board for Eastern Airlines was, because I wanted to see what the odds were of my friends' flight arriving on time (the house odds were usually with a late arrival) and found myself explaining to a room full of stern-faced people that I really, honestly and truly didn't have special personal knowledge about whether anything would alter the chances of a safe arrival.

That turned out to be just as good an idea as making drug jokes around customs people, face-lift jokes around people with shiny cheekbones or hair plug jokes around people whose foreheads look like the magnified business end of a toothbrush.

Bottom line?

As my friend Sean Sexton who teaches at Springstead High School says, it may be all right to yell "cinema" in a crowded fire station, but it's still against the law to yell "fire" in a crowded theater.

Jan Glidewell is a columnist for the North Suncoast editions of the Times.