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Not Your Dad's BB Gun

More Powerful Models Used in Shootings Giving Toy a Bad Name

By Don Oldenburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 26, 2004; Page C01

When George W. Bush was 16 or so, the frogs in the pond outside his boyhood home in Midland, Tex., weren't the only targets the future president shot at with his trusty BB gun.

"He said, 'I'm going to count to 10, and you run all the way down the hall,' " the president's little brother, Neil Bush, recalled at a Utah Republican Party dinner in Provo two years ago, according to the Deseret News.

Ralphie's quest for a BB gun in the cult film "A Christmas Story" speaks to the nostalgia society has for the toy. (Mgm / Zuma Press)

Big brother drawing a bead on the backsides of siblings Neil and Jeb must have left a mark because Neil also told the story to a class of Richmond second-graders. "I was running as fast as I can with my little lightweight summer pj's on, and then '7, 8, 9, 10!' Boom! I felt it on my right [butt] cheek," the Richmond.com news reported his recounting.

But those were simpler times. And BB guns aren't what they used to be -- not most of them. As indicated by the recent spate of BB gun sniping in Northern Virginia and the report this month from the American Academy of Pediatrics attributing about 21,000 injuries annually to BB guns and other air guns, America's Norman Rockwell-like nostalgia for the seemingly benign BB gun may be off target.

"What we think of as BB guns is a lot different than what we're looking at today," says Kraig Troxell, spokesman for the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office. "Some of these firearms are sold at traditional toy stores, but they aren't toys."

Loudoun County last week charged four teenage boys with malicious wounding after a BB gun was fired into a crowd of 20 teenagers on Halloween night in Sterling. Using a BB rifle equipped with a scope and powered by compressed carbon dioxide propulsion, they hit four teenagers, including a 14-year-old girl who was struck "less than an inch from her eye," law enforcement officials say.

The attack came within weeks of other area incidents that are giving BB guns a bad name: A 10-year-old boy was struck in the head while playing in his Alexandria yard, a 27-year-old Woodbridge woman was fired on from a van, a Nokesville man was shot in the eye and more than a dozen car windshields and businesses' windows were shot out in Manassas and Arlington.

"It's hard to speculate what was going through their minds -- whether it was a prank that turned out not to be funny at all," says Troxell.

He is uncertain why BB gun shootings seem to have spiked in the area recently. "I think a lot of people don't realize the harm that [BB guns] can cause."

That may be because of public perception lingering from when BB guns were thought of as no more harmful than "frogging" a buddy with a knuckle punch to the biceps or throwing an elbow rebounding a basketball. In the '40s, '50s, even '60s, they were a rite of passage, held in the same esteem as a good pocketknife.

"In my town, everybody had a BB gun and everybody shot everybody," says noted environmental activist Paul Watson, who grew up four decades ago in the small Canadian coastal town of St. Andrews in New Brunswick. "We used to play 'Cowboys and Indians' with real BB guns and bows and arrows."

Like George W. Bush, Watson once sighted down the barrel of his Daisy BB gun at somebody's buttocks and pulled the trigger. "Except for that boy, I never shot any living thing," he says, explaining that he was 12 at the time and the other boy was about to shoot a bird. Watson fired first, bruised the boy's rear and saved the bird. "A BB in the butt isn't a fatal shot," he says, but "I'm surprised we actually survived childhood."

Humorist Jean Shepherd's "A Christmas Story," a short story and movie classic about growing up in the '40s, is practically a boy's paean to BB guns. The only thing on 10-year-old Ralphie Parker's Christmas list is a Daisy "Red Ryder" -- the carbine-action, 200-shot lightning loader, range-model air rifle with a shock-proof, high-adventure combination trail compass and sundial built into the stock. It is, Shepherd proclaimed, "the Holy Grail of Christmas gifts."

Ralphie's epic quest to convince his parents, teachers and Santa that he should get a BB gun runs up against the inevitable refrain: "You'll shoot your eye out!" But back then it had the ring of motherly caution, like "Don't put your mouth on the public water fountain."

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