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Not Your Dad's BB Gun

"You just weren't a boy unless you had a BB gun," says California air-gun collector Robert Beeman, "king of air guns," who has what's considered the world's largest collection -- 3,000 pieces ranging from an Austrian smokeless .46-caliber repeating military air gun from the 1700s to today's most powerful air guns. "Now you are much more likely to find a kid with a game console than with a real, functioning BB gun. You even mention a BB gun in a social setting and the conversation stops and people look at you."

Today it's a different world. The American Academy of Pediatrics' report said of the 21,000 air-gun-inflicted injuries each year -- which includes all degrees of injury, penetrating and nonpenetrating -- 4 percent require hospitalization. Between 1990 and 2000, air guns caused an average of four deaths each year, most to children younger than 15. The report came two weeks after a 13-year-old South Carolina boy accidentally killed an 8-year-old friend when the BB penetrated his chest and struck his heart.

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)

"Many of us remember having had BB guns and didn't associate them with serious injury and death," says Danielle Laraque, a physician and professor of pediatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and lead author of the study. But today, she says, "these nonpowder guns are not toys. It is important to say that because they are marketed at times as toys and carried in department stores and toy stores."

Virginia D. Nethercutt isn't your typical advocate for alerting the public about the dangers of BB guns. She grew up the daughter of a Green Beret who served in Vietnam. She and her husband are proud members of the National Rifle Association, do not support gun control and are avid hunters (he bagged a nine-point buck two weeks ago).

"We used to have BB gun fights, and it was nothing," says the Havelock, N.C., mother, recalling her childhood years and her lever-action Daisy BB gun.

But when her daughter, Kayla, was 9, a 16-year-old neighbor shot at her with a high-powered BB gun from 150 yards away. The pellet ricocheted off the pavement and lodged four inches deep in the girl's thigh. The state court convicted the boy of assault with a deadly weapon and intent to commit bodily harm.

"We were shocked because they tested the gun and it had the muzzle velocity of a .22, and a .22 has a mile range," says Nethercutt, whose daughter, now 17, recovered except for discomfort in her leg when playing sports. "We didn't know that BB guns were that powerful and we're avid gun people. Most people don't realize it. Parents need to know this."

The BB gun legacy changed from Ralphie's comical quest to the troubled Donnie Darko shooting the stuffing out of Smurfs with the advent of adult-grade air guns.

"The industry didn't sneak this over on everybody. Their sales pitch was that these guns are powerful," says Beeman, who was at the forefront of that market expansion, turning a modest mail-order air-gun company into the international business Beeman Precision Airguns.

In the early '70s, Beeman says, Daisy split the air-gun market by creating a new line of adult air guns that were considerably more powerful than its youth guns.

The Youth Line guns, which Daisy recommended for kids 12 and older with adult supervision, fire BBs or pellets at a velocity of less than 350 feet per second, he says. Ralphie's Red Ryder, Daisy's second-best seller, was 280 to 350 fps. The "hardest hitting" of Daisy's traditional BB guns, Beeman says, was the Model 25 -- 25 million sold in 58 variations from 1914 to 1979 -- which fired in the 400 fps range.

"Around 350 feet per second is a figure you want to keep in mind," says Beeman. "At 300 to 400 fps, that's where penetration occurs in a human skin. Below 350 fps, it is generally considered capable of only limited harm. Above 350 is considered very harmful or lethal. You go into the skull probably at around 500."

The Power Line guns, recommended for ages 16 and older with adult supervision, often more than doubled the Youth Line velocities. "Those are the ones that are being pointed at by the consumer advocates who say there's a risk," says Beeman.

Most of the powerful adult air guns don't look much like the youth models, says Beeman. The Condor -- which came out in March, is made by AirForce and sells for about $600 -- looks like a black stealth weapon. It shoots a 14.3-grain lead pellet at 1,250 fps for the first five shots and 1,200 fps for the next 15 -- promoted as faster than any air rifle on the market.

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