Line Blurs Between Play, Gunplay

[M16A2 Assault Rifle: The Airsoft Gun, and the Real Gun]
By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 22, 2008

An alarm went off one night at Potowmack Elementary School in Sterling, and a surveillance camera recorded the scene: five intruders in masks and hoods darting through hallways and corridors, their assault rifles pointed.

In minutes, sheriff's deputies arrived, their own guns loaded and drawn.

Only after the gunmen were taken into custody did deputies discover that the assault rifles were replicas -- so-called "airsoft" guns that shoot lightweight plastic BBs -- and the intruders were 14-year-old boys. But during that tense confrontation June 2, 2006, fantasy and reality collided, the line blurred between teenagers who were pretending and deputies who were not.

No one was hurt in the Loudoun County school break-in, but that has not been the case everywhere. In the past several years in Maryland, Florida, Pennsylvania and Arkansas, young people with imitation guns have been killed by police who assumed they were armed with the real thing.

"It sends a chill up your spine to think of what could have happened," said Kraig Troxell, a spokesman for the Loudoun sheriff's office, which sent eight deputies to the elementary school that June night.

These cases and others have come amid a quiet uptick in the popularity of airsoft guns. Police have seen more of them. Schools have noted their arrival. Last holiday season, they ranked among the most-searched-for items online in the toys and hobbies category, along with Barbie, Build-a-Bear and Legos, according to the Hitwise Index chart.

The issue of shootings prompted by imitation guns is not new, and Congress and some jurisdictions passed laws more than a decade ago to address such concerns. But with the popularity of airsoft guns and other realistic pellet and BB guns, the issue has taken a new turn and is again causing alarm.

Some parents say the guns are fairly harmless, especially with safety goggles and supervision, just a step beyond laser tag and Nerf guns, a less-expensive and cleaner cousin to paintball. Officials at a major airsoft importer said that safety should be a priority and that the guns are marketed for adults.

Critics, however, say the guns' striking realism and accessibility are a growing problem. They contend that the guns create unnecessary risks -- with both police and anyone else who has a real firearm -- and can scare other people.

"I think they are unreasonably dangerous," said Stephen Teret, founding director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. "I'm not talking about the question, 'Should kids play with guns?' The issue is why you would make the guns so realistic that even a trained policeman can mistake the gun for a real gun."

Airsoft and other look-alike pellet and BB guns are increasingly used in robberies, police officials say, and some jurisdictions have banned or considered bans for possessing or brandishing them in public.

"A lot of these young people were bringing them to school, and some of these look more like a real gun than a real gun," said Police Chief David Bishop of Beaverton, Ore., where replicas were banned in public in March 2007.

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