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Did a little piece of orange plastic cost 13-year-old Andy Lopez of Santa Rosa his life?

Rather, was it a missing piece of plastic — one about the size of a fingertip — that was the difference?

You know what I'm talking about, those plastic "muzzle" caps that go on the ends of toy guns to make it clear that they are not the real deal. The caps have been required under federal law for 25years, mandated since the late 1980s to stem a rising tide of crimes being committed with toy guns.

Thus, BB guns like the one Andy was carrying as he walked down a sidewalk toward a friend's house in southwest Santa Rosa at 3:14 p.m. on Tuesday are required to come with plastic caps.

But it wasn't there when the young man turned toward two sheriff's deputies who had pulled up behind him.

And now Andy isn't here either.

Whether it was a piece of plastic or something else, what we do know is that the difference in this life-or-death moment was something small.

A turn of the body. The raising of a gun barrel. A twitch of a finger on a trigger.

And it all happened in the course of 10 seconds. Ten tragic seconds.

That was all the time, according to a chronology of events released by Santa Rosa police Thursday, that elapsed between the moment the deputies called dispatch to report a suspicious person with a rifle to the time they called back to report shots being fired.

Ten seconds.

We seem to know so much about what happened in that span of time — about how the deputies called for Andy to "put down the gun" at least twice, about how he apparently didn't obey and instead turned toward them, and about how one deputy, believing lives were in danger, fired eight rounds, striking him seven times.

And yet there's so much we don't know. For example, is it possible that Andy wasn't aware that the two deputies had pulled up behind him? Is it possible that when they called, he didn't know it was two members of law enforcement who were giving the order? Even so, is it possible he didn't know they were talking to him? After all, in Andy's mind he was carrying an airsoft rifle, a toy — not a gun.

Furthermore, is it even possible that Andy didn't hear them? Police say he was wearing a hoodie sweatshirt. But was the hood up? Did he have earbuds on and, like so many teenagers, was he unaware of what was happening around him?

As is evident, I'm struggling to understand why Andy Lopez didn't put down the gun. I'm struggling to understand why companies make these stupid things in the first place.

These guns are so authentic looking they too often end up being held aloft at police news conferences, side by side with a real weapon, as part of an explanation as to why somebody is dead — and how the slim difference between real and fake is to blame.

I struggle to understand why America has more gun-related deaths than any developed country in the world and why children and young adults (24 years of age and under) are involved in 38 percent of all firearm-related deaths and injuries.

It's all enough to bring us to our knees.

But as with so many people who have been participating in vigils and marches in Santa Rosa since Tuesday, I'm also having a hard time understanding why the deputy felt so threatened that he had to pull the trigger — eight times.

After all, it was not as if they had evidence that this suspicious person with his back to them presented a clear and present danger. He was not walking toward a crowd of people. The

deputies were not responding to a report of a dangerous person firing an assault weapon in the area.

Residents of that area in fact are used to seeing young men with airsoft rifles roaming the open fields. Andy was killed beside a large undeveloped lot where, in the spring, the grass grows so tall that it's a fun place for children to run and hide — and play with BB guns. Were the officers not familiar with that?

I certainly understand why the deputies stopped and called for the young man to put down his gun. What I don't understand is why Andy is dead.

As police described it, the deputy fired because, as Andy turned "the barrel of the assault rifle was rising up and turning in (the deputy's) direction."

Was that enough to take a life? Why is it always "shoot-to-kill" anyway? Wouldn't this have been a good time to show force that was less than lethal?

I know I shouldn't second-guess. I've never worn a badge. I've never been in that situation. And given all the gun violence — and cable coverage of it — there's good reason for police and the rest of us to be on edge. Yet, as I wonder why the one deputy fired his weapon, I also can't help wondering why the other didn't.

Maybe we will find out someday. Three investigations, one internal, one

being overseen by Santa Rosa and Petaluma police and one by the FBI, are now underway. But knowing the history of these things, I'm

doubtful we will ever get the full story of what happened in those 10 seconds, primarily because the one person

who has the most to say can't speak for himself.

And we're all struggling with that.

Paul Gullixson is editorial director for The Press Democrat. Email him at paul.gullixson@pressdemocrat.com.

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