A ban on the use of "facsimile firearms" in the city of Madison is one step closer to reality following a meeting of the Board of Estimates on Monday night. The Common Council committee recommended approval of the ordinance, which would conform city code to state law.
Specifically, it would prohibit persons from carrying or displaying "a facsimile firearm in a manner that could reasonably be expected to alarm, intimidate, threaten or terrify another person" and establishes a fine of $300 per violation.
Introduced on June 26, the proposal is moving swiftly through the city approval process. Its nine co-sponsors -- Alds. Judy Compton, Joe Clausius, Tim Gruber, Eli Judge, Julia Kerr, Thuy Pham-Remmele, Marsha Rummel, Michael Schumacher and Paul Skidmore -- broadly represent the council's ideological and geographical breadth.
The ordinance's low-profile has been raised slightly in recent days following word of a strange event that occurred at an east-side church in mid-June.
Last Friday, the Madison Police Department East District issued its July newsletter, a monthly listing of property crimes and other notable police interactions in the city's east quadrant. One brief item stood out, generating a flurry of exchanges on TDPF about religion and firearms. Headlined "Church Organizes War Games," the item reads:
On 6/17, an officer was on routine patrol, shortly after midnight, when she observed several juveniles in the back of a pickup truck in a church parking lot. Her attention was drawn to the boys because of the late hour and they appeared to be holding handguns and rifles. A nearby adult contacted the officer and explained that the boys had air soft guns. He stated that the church organizes this activity for the boys where half of them hide in the woods with their "guns" and the other half go and find them with their "guns." Some of the boys were dressed in black trench coats and gas masks. The air soft guns looked like AK47's, shot guns and handguns.
The officers attempted explain that juveniles carrying guns, dressed in dark clothing during the middle of the night may alarm anyone who sees them and might result in a tragedy if confronted by police who believe the guns to be real. A follow-up contact was made with the pastor of the church. While he acknowledged our concerns, he did not commit to ending this practice.
The location in question is Calvary Gospel Church, a large church on Commercial Avenue affiliated with the United Pentecostal Church International. Offering seven pastors and five weekly services (including two that are bilingual), the church provides numerous adult and youth ministries and operates the Calvary Christian Academy, a "private Christian Education Center for grades K-12."
Pastor Richard Thomas of Calvary Gospel is not aware of fake gunplay on church grounds but says, "I know kids typically go out on the playground and play around."
The official police report, available as a PDF in the related downloads at right, details the officer's interactions with the event's organizer, who said he is a member of the church and runs the games on a bimonthly basis. The officer also lists the facsimile weapons carried by the youth ("AK-47s, 6mm pistols, long guns, shotguns, and Uzi air guns"), and contends that the organizer "appeared to be frustrated with me for interfering with his scenario." The report concludes by noting that police would investigate the legality of playing with fake firearms on private property.
Madison Ald. Brenda Konkel speculates that this incident prompted interest in a facsimile gun ban: "So, is that what this is about? I guess the paintball guns weren't enough?"
Thomas suggests the impetus may be broader, such as mass shootings like the one at Virginia Tech this spring. "I suspect that's made folks a bit paranoid," he says.
Board of Estimates member Ald. Zach Brandon also wonders if this event led to the proposal. Though he raised questions about its necessity and application, he ultimately voted in favor because he trusts police to apply it appropriately.
"I'm still not positive as to exactly what we want to accomplish," says Brandon. But he thinks it will help police deal with some situations without having to enforce the state law, involving the DA's office and potentially introducing children to the justice system over a game. The proposed ordinance will subsequently be debated by the full Common Council.
Ironically, the ordinance would likely not preclude the "war games" at Calvary Gospel Church. A subsection says it does not apply to "any person who is on his or her own real property, in his or her own home or at his or her own fixed place of business," as well as to "any person who is on real property and acting with the consent of the owner."
Lt. Carl Strasberg of the Madison Police Department's east district office, nonetheless emphasizes their apprehension about such activities. "Our number-one concern is for the safety of participants in an activity like this," he says. "Our worst fear is that our officers would get a call or see an activity with guns that look real, and then they are faced with a potentially deadly situation."