Deadly weapons hiding in plain sight

FRESNO, Calif.

Of the four billion cell phones in the world, only a few pack a punch to be feared.

Clever criminals have figured out how to weaponize one of the most common devices, and Central Valley police are taking notice.

Police Chief Frank Steenport told Action News, "Very innocuous items, things we see every day, people have very fertile minds and they can convert them into a firearm."

Orange Cove Police Chief Frank Steenport has his officers on alert for the disguised weapons. He says this type of gun makes it hard to strike the right balance between people's personal rights and the safety of officers in the field. He said, "So now the officers has to look very closely without becoming overbearing or paranoid and look at the cell phone to see if it's got a barrel on it."

Officers say the loaded cell phones can put them in a no-win situation when approaching suspected criminals.

Fresno police have been criticized for shooting unarmed suspects when they mistook cell phones for guns, as they did with Lonnie Graham in 2009. Now, devices that look like a phone may actually fire bullets.

Chief Steenport said, "It creates an extra hard situation because law enforcement officers frequently have to make very split second decisions -- to shoot or not shoot."

Cell phone guns are alarming, but police are on the lookout for other disguises as well. Among more than 100 guns they've seized in the last five months, Fresno police found one masquerading as a super soaker water gun, and another posing as a flashlight. Officers say they're just scratching the surface of the ingenuity of criminals.

Capt. Randy Dobbins said, "In the last few years, we've seen weapons disguised as everything from briefcases to backpacks to books, you name it."

A couple American companies manufacture the flashlight gun, and it's available for purchase online. But most of the weapons can only be bought on the black market. Steenport says they're most commonly found at swap meets. He said, "If somebody comes by who has the right wink or the secret handshake, they get the special super soaker."

Police say criminals are usually using disguised guns as an element of surprise against other criminals. But they're concerned it's just a matter of time before innocent people become the targets.

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