Dominic Nell knew he had to do something.
He was shaken by the shooting death of Tamir Rice in 2014.
Dominic Nell (left) and Juan Nance (right) stand in the aisle of a Dollar General in West Baltimore, where they are working to have every toy gun and replica firearm removed from shelves. (Photo by Alexis Taylor)
He was alarmed by the non-fatal shooting of Baltimore teen, Dedric Colvin in April. But with tension rising between the community and police after the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile – he hit the pavement.
The target was clear: Every toy gun that could be the source of a fatal misunderstanding with police had to come off the shelves in West Baltimore.
Since earlier this month, the 39-year-old photographer, urban farmer, and mentor has pulled together community organizations and concerned citizens to rid both the Sandtown- Winchester and Penn and North neighborhoods of all toy and replica firearms.
“I don’t want another ‘hashtag’ on my shift,” Nell told the AFRO. “I’m challenging parents to stop buying toy guns for their kids and I want stores to stop selling them- at least in Baltimore City.”
In exchange for toy guns, Nell, who owns and operates Fresh at the Avenue, is offering a much healthier substitute to stores located in the fresh food deserts across Zone 17.
“I’m not just asking storeowners to take something off their shelves- I’m actually replacing it with something people can use every day. We have the ability to put fresh food in these stores everyday of the week,” he said.
Nell and his band of community leaders have been to over 20 corner stores and major retailers in Zone 17, the area of West Baltimore where his family runs six generations deep. They have been met with little resistance.
“We took all the guns that they had to the front counter and we said ‘either we buy them all or you put them away.’ They chose to put them away,” said Juan Nance, a Baltimore educator, entrepreneur, and mentor who took to the streets with Nell.
Nance, 39, told the AFRO the initiative is about more than just preventing negative interactions with authorities.
“People are also using fake guns for very real robberies. People don’t even know that they are being robbed with a fake gun,” he said. “As an educator, I also know how children are programmed at early ages. They are guided to do things they see.”
Baltimore Police Department officials say they fully support the efforts.
“We all have the same goal in mind,” said T.J. Smith, spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department. “A replica firearm in a community plagued with gun violence is only encouraging familiarity and use of an object like that. We’re not talking about orange see- through water pistols. We’re talking about black- sometimes steel- dead ringers for firearms.”
“We’re in a city where over 290 people were killed by a handgun last year,” Smith said in a sit-down with the AFRO. “That’s not unique to Baltimore- but it’s on the higher end of what we see nationally. It doesn’t make sense to play with something that looks like an object that killed over 290 people and injured hundreds more.”
Councilman Nick Mosby, who represents the seventh district in Zone 17, believes the bigger problem is the “normalization of guns.”
Mosby said his mother did not purchase or allow him to play with toy guns as a child. “It’s something that we need to stop normalizing,” he said. “Handgun violence is significantly impacting black men in Baltimore and across the country.”
Nell and his group are targeting all toy and replica guns that could easily be mistaken for the real firearms they imitate perfectly up close or at a distance.
Alan Kaufman, senior vice- president of technical affairs for The Toy Industry Association, said the general public needs more clarity on laws and definitions related to toy guns.
“Toy guns and imitation firearms are already regulated for marking at the federal level,” said Kaufman, noting that states and municipalities can add on additional restrictions and regulations.
According to federal law, if the toy or imitation gun is not a bright, non-traditional color for a firearm or transparent, then it must at least have an orange tip or a blaze orange marking that is no less than six millimeters wide.
None of these regulations apply to “traditional B-B, paint-ball, or pellet-firing air guns that expel a projectile through the force of compressed air, compressed gas or mechanical spring action.”
Kaufman said “what is sometimes called a ‘toy’ is an item outside of that law that does not have to adhere to the requirements because it is not seen as a toy. The word ‘toy’ is used loosely and somewhat incorrectly.”
The BB gun 14-year-old Colvin had when shot by Baltimore police on April 27 was a $25 Daisy Powerline 340 air pistol.
Joe Murfin, vice president of public relations for Daisy Outdoor Products, said “air guns are not toys or replicas- they do shoot a steel or lead projectile in a rate of speed can cause serious injury or death if you misused.”
When asked about the company’s products and their role in police-involved shootings, Murfin said “a BB gun is a gun. It’s not a ‘mistake for a gun’ – it is a gun. If someone wants to use it criminally- or make a bad decision, you are looking at someone mishandling a gun.”
Murfin said that Daisy products come with a warning against brandishing their BB guns in public spaces. He also said that BB guns should be used only for “practice, competition, pest control and small game hunting.”
“When the community outlaws something like this, they are outlawing a very product that could teach someone how to be responsible with a gun,” said Murfin.
Though many issues surround both real and toy guns, Kaufman doubts children will stop playing cops and robbers any time soon. “Children have done it for many years and will continue to do it for years to come,” he said.
According to Nell, however, the game comes with rules that aren’t so simple for Black children in Baltimore.
“A little White boy with a toy gun isn’t a threat- a six foot black boy playing cops and robbers with a toy gun on Pennsylvania Avenue in Baltimore is a target,” he said. “I look at that little orange tip and I know it isn’t going to safe a life alone- it’s just an orange clip.”