SOUTH JORDAN — When the South Jordan police department gets a call that a man with a gun is hiding in the bushes of the Jordan River Parkway trail, they'd rather not wonder if the gun is real.
They'd rather not see a toy that looks like a real weapon and shoot the person holding it because they think their lives are in danger.
These days, with more than 15 complaints about fake weapons — mistaken for being real — being brandished in the city in the past year and a half, it's getting harder to tell. That's why the police department has asked the City Council to amend the city's code and outlaw the use of air guns, replicas of firearms, BB guns and paintball guns except in certain circumstances.
"We've had multiple problems ... where you encounter these kids doing something that they don't think there's anything wrong with," South Jordan Police Lt. Matt Evans told the council on Tuesday night. "But they have a weapon that looks no different than any other kind of gun and unfortunately, time and time again, they're getting encountered with three and four police officers with guns drawn, pointing at them. If they move in just the wrong direction, they'll end up getting shot and right now, there's nothing we can do about that."
Air guns are usually distinguished by an orange rim around the muzzle, but in low-light conditions, that marker can be hard to see, according to a city report on the issue. Sometimes people paint over the orange marker to make their "gun" look more realistic.
The result can be startling, said police Chief Lindsay Shepherd. One officer recently thought his life was in danger when he pulled a man over for a routine traffic stop. The man reached into his glove box to get his registration, and revealed a realistic-looking black gun. Neither man was hurt, but the confusion could have been avoided, Shepherd said.
The police department also recently responded to a 911 call of a man lying in the bushes with a rifle that turned out to be fake.
"It caused a pretty tense moment, and it ended up that it was an Airsoft gun," Evans said. "You can imagine the kind of response that would ensue from that call."
The ordinance, if the council approves it at the next City Council meeting on June 17, would apply to any toy gun that can be used to propel "by compressed air, gas, electricity or spring-loaded plunger, any pellet, dart, hard-tipped arrow, bean, pea, BB, paintball, rock or other hard substance." West Jordan, West Valley City, Salt Lake City and North Salt Lake have similar ordinances.
Most of the council voiced support of the ordinance at Tuesday's council meeting, but Councilwoman Aleta Taylor says she is worried that the ordinance — which would require residents to notify the police department if they plan to use the items included in the ordinance on their private property — might step over the boundaries of residents' personal rights.
Taylor says she wants to gather public input before the council makes a decision.
"South Jordan has already infringed on residents' rights on their own property because of our restrictions for buildings," Taylor said. "There are all kinds of rules in South Jordan. Part of this may be adding to it — it may be the last straw."