A court has been forgiving to a Coledale dad who sparked a fully-fledged riot squad emergency when he was spotted walking his neighbourhood with a "machine gun" that turned out to be a toy gel blaster.
But with the man's job still hanging in the balance, the case has highlighted the damaging gulf between public perceptions of the toys and the state's gun laws, which class them as illegal weapons.
The sight of an "armed" Phillip Thomas Dennison walking on Lawrence Hargrave Drive the morning of September 1 prompted a concerned resident to snap his photo and phone in a physical description that was broadcast with urgency among the city's police.
Local officers and the Public Order and Riot Squad raced to the area. They set up a perimeter and were lying in wait as the hapless Dennison emerged from a friend's house, clad in yellow tie-dye, as described.
The 49-year-old complied with police directions to cross the road with his hands outstretched, and to sit on the ground. Questioned about the gun, he told police it was a toy and that they would find it on his front porch.
The police crowd soon dispersed, but Dennison was charged with possessing an unauthorised prohibited firearm, a development incompatible with his longtime work as a flight steward.
Gel blasters take ammunition in the form of tiny balls that swell up into soft gel spheres about 8mm in diameter, once soaked in water. They are legal in some overseas countries and in Queensland, but under NSW law they are classed as illegal weapons and have resulted in several recent convictions before Illawarra courts.
On Tuesday Wollongong Local Court heard Dennison had bought the realistic-looking gel blaster for his son's 10th birthday, paying $360 after an online ad took him to the website of a Queensland-based "toy" company.
Defence lawyer Patrick Schmidt called for leniency, arguing Dennison had not known he was buying an illegal weapon and was a poor choice to be made an example of.
Magistrate Chris McRobert found Dennison had acted without any deliberate criminal intent.
"Certainly courts need to make it very clear there is good reason items of this nature are prohibited. The primary one is that they can, at first glance, look like a real weapon and be used to carry out robberies and the like," he said.
"I accept without reservation that at the time of purchase you had no idea that that was a weapon that was prohibited in this state without a permit."
The matter was dismissed, with no conviction recorded.
Outside court, Dennison told the Mercury his September 1 experience was like something out of a movie.
"I ran across the street to get batteries from my mate and someone snapped a photo and the SWAT team turned up. It was like the end scene of the Blues Brothers," he said.
"I didn't even know I'd done anything wrong.
"It's not like I ordered it from Mexico on the Dark Web. It was a clean-cut young gay guy from Southport."
Mr Schmidt told the Mercury he had represented four or five people similarly caught out by the laws, in recent months.
"The police have agreed that the public ignorance in these matters - it's out of control," he said.
"The problem the courts have got is that they look so real. People just do not realise the implications. It's the same as having an M16 machine gun without a license. A real gun."
Mr Schmidt said firearms charges had serious consequences for many of his clients including Dennison, who had yet to be cleared to return to work.
"He has to now go and disclose [the court outcome] to the [industry] union and they'll do their investigation. He's definitely not out of the woods yet," he said.
"The worst is when someone has a previous firearms offence - then they're looking at jail time.
"What I'd like to see is proper advertising on the websites that are selling them. If they had a big warning: 'check your state's rules and regulations in relation to possession of firearm' - in big red writing on the website.
"Everyone thinks they're toys. The word's just not getting out."