One can kill while the other is a toy, but police are finding it increasingly difficult to tell the difference as fake firearms become more realistic.
Armed police raided a house in the Wellington suburb of Johnsonville on Tuesday after a member of the public reported seeing a gun being pointed through a window.
It turned out the gun was a toy given as a 10th birthday present. A man, 21, has been charged with possession of an imitation firearm.
Last year, film-makers brandishing an imitation AK47 rifle and other fake firearms sparked an armed police response in central Wellington after residents became scared. And in 2010, a Napier student sparked a police callout when walking with two replica assault rifles being used for a school play.
Some fake guns now looked so real that only experts could distinguish them from genuine ones, Inspector Terry Van Dillen said.
Tuesday night's siege, at its peak, tied up about 20 police. It lasted more than four hours. "We would rather put our resources into preventing crime."
People with imitation firearms could be charged if they presented them in a way that could be threatening, he said. That was judged by the intention, demeanour or actions of the person, such as pointing the fake weapon at others.
"A person walking around with a water pistol, you would probably take no notice," he said. However, doing something with the same gun that would frighten people could lead to a different outcome. "At the end of the day, until we can find out [what it is] we have to treat it as if it is real."
He said he would support calls to make imitation firearms more distinctive, such as having them painted a bright colour. "We are not going to get rid of them, but can we identify them?"
- The Dominion Post