Custom LEGO model kit leads to tactical police response [Interview]

I ran across this story on Thursday and thought it was interesting enough to pass along.

Put yourself in Jeremy Bell’s shoes. You’re a creative director at Teehan+Lax, a Downtown Toronto design firm and a lifelong LEGO fan. You’re having a quiet Tuesday afternoon at the office. Hey, you just got a custom BrickGun model kit of a semi-auto handgun in the mail. Why not build it at your desk? (I for one totally understand, I just did the same thing last week with the Space Police Smash ‘n’ Grab.) After you’re done, you show the model to a co-worker, he breaks it, you put it back in its box, then unwind with some co-workers by playing video games.

Jeremy Bell with LEGO BrickGun
Photo above courtesy of National Post and Global TV

The problem is, handguns are illegal in Canada, and gun play at work is generally associated with disgruntled employee rampages, rather than good LEGO design. So that afternoon, a person with a condo overlooking Jeremy’s window office saw him assembling the model, thought it was a real handgun and called the police. (He has since apologize via Twitter, Facebook and a handmade sign put up in his window.)

About an hour after putting away the model gun, the gaming was interrupted by yelling in the hallway. Jeremy peeked into the hall and saw members of the Toronto Police Emergency Task Force with real big guns pointed at him. He cooperated, got ‘cuffed, told them to check out the LEGO gun in his office, and he was uncuffed in about 90 seconds. Done, right?

It became a slightly bigger deal because people in and immediately around the building were detained, had big guns pointed at them, the street was closed off by half a dozen police cars, a couple ambulances waited nearby, and a helicopter hovered overhead. For details on the basic facts of the story, the best details and perspective are in Jeremy’s blog, but also check out some of the local Toronto online news outlets like GlobalToronto and Torontoist, where I first ran across the story.

Jeremy is now obviously being pestered by media all across Canada, and even by US LEGO nerds like me. He was gracious enough to answer a few questions:

The Brothers Brick: How do you feel about all this attention over a bizarre misunderstanding?
Jeremy Bell: I could do without the attention, but I do find the whole situation hilarious. Don’t get me wrong, guns in the workplace aren’t cool, and I’m aware that people have been killed over similar misunderstandings—luckily this event didn’t turnout the same.

TBB: What form has your LEGO fandom taken? Collector, builder, sets, your own creations, just looking?
JB: I’ve been a fan of Lego since I was a little kid, but it’s not something I spend a lot of time playing with now. That said, I’ll usually assemble actual kits and then combine the pieces with the rest of my collection and build my own creations.

TBB: Was the ordering of the custom gun kit a bit of lark? How did you find out about the kit? Was it any good?
JB: I discovered the BrickGun kit on a design blog (if I recall correctly), so ya… it was a bit of a lark. The kit had about 250 pieces in it, plus some elastic bands. Was it any good? Well, I got arrested… that’s gotta count for something I guess.

TBB: According to the other news stories, you’re the Creative Director at a design company? How has this affected your professional relationships, since this went down at work?
JB: Excellent question about the work side of things… no one has asked that yet. At the moment, all of our clients seem to think it’s pretty humours (although we haven’t heard from all of them yet). We’ll see how this shakes out next week.

TBB: How about your family?
JB: My family’s always known I was a Lego fan, so they weren’t surprised to see what I built. That said, my wife wasn’t so thrilled when she found out.

Thanks, Jeremy!

From looking at BrickGun’s website, they’re a little overwhelmed by the media driven orders because of this story, so if this gets you all excited to order something from them, good luck trying to get it in time for the holidays.

26 comments on “Custom LEGO model kit leads to tactical police response [Interview]

  1. gigahound

    Well that sounds like a fun way to blow a Tues afternoon at work…and video games too!

    Try that in America and see if you’re still employed that evening….

  2. l0b0t

    Wow… having grown up in a culture where firearms use from a very young age is normative and commonplace, it saddens me to see such a waste of time and resources. A peeping tom sees a fellow build a model handgun, panics, calls the coppers who then storm the neighborhood like light infantry? Whatever happened to escalating, appropriate levels of force? On the bright side, it’s nice to see a small business getting a boost in sales.

  3. legoadam

    I’m glad I didn’t grow up in a culture where people walking around with guns are normal. Good job Canadians! Too bad Jeremy had this unfortunate experience. But I’m sure he will feel more secure upon seeing the response of security officers for any suspicious activity.

  4. l0b0t

    Fair enough. Have you Oceanians managed to conquer Eurasia or Eastasia, or does the war rage on. Seriously though, I don’t know if you are old enough to remember what the world was like before the militarization of domestic law enforcement agencies but most problems responded to by city/parish/county officials are only exasperated when the Los Angeles style (as created by Chief Darryl Gates in the 1970s-80s) of tactical force projection is used. There has been a long standing debate about this in the L.E. community but the US war on drugs and 9/11 caused the pendulum to swing way too far (IMHO) to one side. There are also the market dynamics of the arms trade; when we buy new weapons for our soldiers we have to find buyers for the old ones. In the US, until the late 1960s, it was quite simple for civilians to purchase war surplus firearms; now its almost as simple but VERY expensive/intrusive (lots of costly tax stamps, random searches by the BATFE). So, now local cops have machine guns and armored vehicles and neighbors are peeking into windows like they were in the GDR. I’ll take my childhood of fishing and hunting for supper, camping in the mountains, and target plinking over that scenario every time.

  5. Mainman

    I thought Canadians were supposed to be the more level-headed folks on this continent. Emergency task force for a pistol _sighting_? I’m glad to live in a place where I can clean and assemble my guns (real and fake) by a window and not be bothered by a single cop, much less a SWAT team.

    Also: “…people have been killed over similar misunderstandings…” Is that for real? Sounds like the Mounties need some education in restraint.

  6. Catsy

    Mainman: I suspect he was referring to people–including kids–who’ve been shot by police when wielding what looked like a real gun. This is why toy guns in the US are required to have a brightly colored plug in the barrel, among other things.

    I’ve brought my XR-7 to work before several times without incident to show it off to coworkers, but I would be a lot more hesitant to do so if it were black and wasn’t obviously a sci-fi toy.

    On the one hand the response of the police in this incident was completely disproportionate, but on the other hand I don’t fault either them for responding or the caller for reporting what he saw. Different country, different laws and attitudes.

  7. proudlove

    Of course, we have no idea what the caller that reported it actually told the police. For all we know, the person claimed they saw a lunatic gunning down all his co-workers. I am fairly certain the RCMP would not go storming into a place with riot gear if someone called and said that they simply saw someone with a handgun. We can actually own handguns here in Canada, though the hoops to jump through to get a license are many and narrow.

  8. qaddafi

    Handguns illegally imported from the US are a serious problem in Toronto, with many incidents of handgun violence getting significant media attention over the past number of years. I almost can’t fault the neighbour who called the police when he saw what appeared to be, by his own admission, a real weapon in a workplace. Good on Mr. Bell for approaching this incident with humour.

  9. Creative Anarchy

    It’s hard to feel like I live in a country crowded with gun nuts when gun free countries have these kinds of incidents. For all our faults as a pro-gun society we’re at least accustomed to living around them and we understand the use of guns and how to deal with them reasonably.

  10. The Ranger of Awesomeness

    Ha, you guys are hilarious. Catsy’s right, stuff like this has ended fatal before. I remember at least three instances in the last few years where someone holding a paintball, toy, or airsoft gun was shot.

    I completely agree with proudlove’s post here.

  11. Dr. Paleo Ph.D.

    This is such a crock. Whatever happened to the right to…oh wait, that’s right, Canadians don’t have that. Disgusting.

  12. gambort

    I think you US Americans might want to take a look at some raw statistics (per capita gun deaths springs to mind) before claiming that this is an example of why guns should be commonplace. I’d be willing to bet that similar incidents occur in the US so frequently that they make minimal news.

    Note that I’m not making claims either way on gun control, just the misuse of examples to further arguments.

  13. Creative Anarchy

    Yes our gun deaths, crime statistics, criminals caught and violent crimes defended against are going to be different than Canada’s. If you expected an apple to be comparable to an orange it makes a lot of sense that you apple eaters would be surprised by the orangy taste when you get a mouthful of it. America was built on the barrel of a gun. Gun control isn’t a real debate in our country. Many Americans are charmed by the idea but even we aren’t so hypocritcal as to imagine we can sieze a land by violence and claw our way to 1st world status with more and better guns and then become pacifists. To give you an example and to bring things back to topic. When I was younger I didn’t understand TLG’s stance to abstain from making lego sets that featured identifyable guns (When I was young that was still the case). Toy stores in my country were full of action figures that centerred around armed combat, my friends and I played with alarmingly realistic toy guns that had no safety markings, even as a very young child violet themes were central to play, be it playing cowboys and indians, cops and robbers or playing army. It wasn’t until I was in college that I got enough of a perspective of the difference between countries to understand that the men running Lego grew up in a culture that put different values on militarism and the idea of personal freedom of arms and were marketting their products with an incomplete understand of the American relationship with the gun.

    My father (Who is a man prone to foolish-sounding brilliance) once told me that; At the end of the day a dog is allways just a dog wheather or not you want to throw it a bone.

  14. proudlove

    If an American loves his gun more than he loves his giant SUV, does the SUV get jealous? Inquiring minds want to know.

  15. Brad

    I don’t want to debate the differences between U.S. and Canada statistics on guns, gun safety, and gun violence. I’m of the mind to agree to disagree because gun rights are a contentious issue and I don’t think we will ‘solve’ it, as it were.

    However, I don’t think this story is about how Canada treats guns. It is about how law enforcement responds to a report of someone with a weapon in a workplace. If someone in the U.S. held a replica weapon in their office and a neighbor called the police, I think we’d see the same reaction (heavy police or SWAT response). The police take even the possibility of an incident extremely seriously.

  16. l0b0t

    Brad, that was kinda my point. In the parts of the US that aren’t on the North East or Western coastlines you most certainly would not see such an inappropriate level of response. Growing up in the inter-mountain West (Colorado, Montana, Wyoming) and now, living in the South (Louisiana), one finds that firearms use is not demonized to the extent that it is on both of America’s left-coasts (and apparently also in the Great White North). Shop keepers, merchants, etc. are frequently armed and nobody panics. There are now IIRC 39 states with “Shall Issue” carry laws. That means that citizens of those states may apply for a license to carry a concealed (or in some states open) weapon and if the state can not find a specific reason to deny the application within a certain time limit, they must issue the license. So, I, as a veteran, taxpayer, law-abiding citizen need only pay the State of Louisiana $180 every 5 years (plus fingerprinting & background check) and I may wander around armed in 39 of the 50 states. Compare that with NYC, where one needs a permit just to store an unloaded, unassembled firearm in one’s home. That permit is only available at the discretion of one’s local police precinct captain after paying them a nonrefundable $380 fee (so if the captain doesn’t feel that people should be allowed to keep firearms at home, a Constitutionally protected activity, he doesn’t have to issue a permit). As for carrying a firearm in NYC, fugheddaboutit; carry permits are only issued to politicians and celebrities. This has done absolutely nothing to reduce the amount of gun-crime in NYC as the folks that rob & shoot others tend not to bother to apply for a storage license in the first place. NYC also leads the nation in accidental police shootings; Google Sean Bell and read about a poor unarmed kid gunned down on his wedding night by panicky undercover cops (One cop fired 50 rounds @ Bell from a distance of 6-7 meters, hitting him only 3 times.) Michael Moore even had a bit about trigger-happy NY cops in one of his movies after the NYPD shot and killed a man for trying to hand a cop his wallet when asked to produce identification. The accidental shootings do not, as has been suggested by posters above, have anything to do with toy guns (The blaze-orange tip is mandated only for toys being imported into the US and is to speed up customs inspections, not for user safety; domestic manufacturers and end users have no such mandate.) but, rather, with a serious lack of training on the part of the police. As for the now extant cultural differences between Europe and the US regarding personal firearms ownership, I would urge our European friends to read up on their history. You will find that your nations were disarmed in the 20th century, not to keep citizens safe from gun crime but to protect your aristocratic, oligarchic, ruling classes from the radical social upheaval (revolution, Communist or otherwise) that was sweeping the continent at the time.

  17. Thanel Post author

    I’m perfectly happy to engage in the general debate about gun owenership, but I won’t right now. I’ll just keep it to the specifics of this incident for the moment.

    Oddly enough, for what appears from the outside like a bizarre cock-up, everyone involved basically did the right thing. Handugns are generally illegal there. Therefore someone with a gun is likely a criminal and quite possibly has other criminal intent, in an office building in the middle of the city on a workday. Therefore the police are called. The police arrive, cordon off the area to limit collateral damage and to assist in identifying who they’re looking for. They quickly detain the suspect without any injury to him. He responsibly follows instructions, verbally clears up the misunderstanding while ‘cuffed. Police confirm and he’s uncuffed with no hard feelings in less than 2 minutes. This actually went really well. I do have a few questions about why the reporting party waited so long to call the police, but that’s really my only reservation.

    I don’t know how many of you have had a bad day at work, but I’ve had a few and I’m sure glad I didn’t have a gun with me. And I’ve had more than a few co-workers in the past I’m damn pleased didn’t have a gun at work on one of their crazy days. I think gambort and Brad have particularly good points about how frequently incidents like this happen, but nobody knows about it, and also that this is how it’s often dealt with. Quickly and without harm. This case made the news because of the LEGO angle.

    With a possibly armed criminal suspect, police typically respond with guns already pointed (e.g. pulling over a car taken in a carjacking is almost always a “hot stop”). There’s no point in bringing firepower if it’s holstered and the criminal already has a gun to someone’s head and could be willing to pull the trigger. That being said, l0b0t has a good point about certain police departments being especially bad at training officers officers to think and talk before squeezing the trigger, missing, reloading and squeezing the trigger a few more times.

  18. worker201

    As an American, I’d like to thank other Americans in advance for discontinuing to make blanket statements about how Americans feel about guns that really only apply to the 25 people you know well. Some of your fellow countrymen agree with you, but others strongly disagree. Please refrain from speaking for 300 million people until the statistics are strongly on your side.

  19. Creative Anarchy

    @Worker201 – Statistics are strongly on my side. We live in a Democracy, our bill of rights can be amended at any time. We have rights of gun ownership. If the majority of Americans don’t support the idea then at the very worst opinion is close enough to the center that nothing is changing it. It’s not lost on me that there are many Americans who believe passionately that gun ownership is a liability to our safety. However that passion has not changed the country yet.

    And I have probably nearly 27 people I know well thank you sir!

    @Thaniel – America is very different from the world you know. We are armed in the office, things do get crazy, we don’t shoot one another. In our country people who have guns aren’t necessarily violent or up to no good. We are willing to trust gun owners because they tend to be much more lawful than average citizens, they are passionate about the right to gun ownership and don’t want to lose it. Our citizens have a right not to be threatened by armed policemen. Our police have to confirm that a weapon is in play before they can aim a weapon at you (A convincing toy weapon would be enough). While the situation that happened to Jeremy may seem like a reasonable response to you to us it seems authoritarian and frightening that someone would be treated like that.

  20. l0b0t

    Also, what seems to be glossed over here is the blasé acceptance of a neighborhood peeping Tom. Are not voyeurism and breach of recognizance still against the law in Canada? Perhaps it’s just a cultural difference but I would be much more irate about having a pervy, peeping Tom for a neighbor than a fellow that plays with Lego.

  21. Brad

    Creative Anarchy, I don’t think it is fair to claim that the fact that the 2nd Amendment hasn’t been changed is evidence that most Americans agree with you. The Constitution is RARELY changed. We could have massive disagreement about a particular issue, but not change the Constitution. I would add that I don’t think a large number of people who are for gun control are against gun ownership. By and large, I think most Americans agree with the 2nd amendment. However, there is disagreement about what kinds of arms should be available and how or if they should be regulated.

    I really want to stress what I think was my main point: if U.S. police receive a report of an armed man at a location, they will respond with force. They won’t say, “Oh, I’m sure it is all right – someone is just showing off their handgun.” A sort of corollary is that if a witness sees someone brandish a gun, I don’t think it is unreasonable to call the police.

    I don’t think this news story has anything to do with gun control or gun laws. This is the police responding to a potentially dangerous situation. Fortunately, it wasn’t a dangerous situation, but the police don’t have the luxury of making that decision before they arrive on the scene.

  22. Brad

    A short postscript:

    I am assuming that the toy gun was brandished or pointed. However, none of the news stories I’ve read state that explicitly (only that Jeremy handed the toy to a coworker, who broke it). It may have only been handed over to a coworker, then handed back. I will agree that if the gun had simply been passed back and forth, the witness probably overreacted.

    However, even if the witness did, I still don’t believe that the police did.

  23. CatJuggling

    Really, there’s only one way to settle this. Build a bunch of Lego guns, distribute them to people working in skyscrapers in a number of large cities in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. Then report them and observe the police response! It’s scientific!

  24. Creative Anarchy

    Brad I definately agree that a minority of people in america believes that nobody should own a gun. Just as I feel that Virtually every american believes there should be limits on personal armament and most have a consensus of where that should be. The vast bulk of Americans fall very soundly in the middle of any argument about our rights. We are at our foundation concernd about letting people live their own life without judgement.

    I don’t however agree that the police respond with force to the presence of a gun in America as they are not legally entitled to. Even on the left coast where I live (Or perhaps the other left, it’s hard to keep them straight) people often display guns in public, take them out to show others put them on counters in crowded places of business. It raises brows but it isn’t in violation of the law. If you called the police to tell them someone in my office had a gun, not that he was threatenning others or acting suspicious, they’d ask you what you want them to do about a person on private property upholding their rights. If you were particularly agitated they might drive to my office building and ask permisison to speak with me about the incident. If I walked down to the lobby with the gun tucked into my belt it may make the conversation tense but they wouldn’t have legal right to point a weapon at me or place me in restraints.

    @l0b0t My love of the brick has been called perverse by many but saying that someone watching me play with Legos is involved in voyurism is stretching things a bit. Doing what you do in front of a big glass window is behavior in plain sight.

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