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.
In the Washington suburbs, children as young as 9 or 10 chase each other armed with airsoft guns, some imitating such popular video games as Halo and Call of Duty. Play dates can bring together boys and their replicas of M4s, Glock 19s and AK-47s. A few inexpensive models are a more toylike clear plastic. Some families are watchful about the guns, keeping them under lock and key and insisting on supervision.
"I would much rather see my son acting out video games -- running, building bunkers, being active -- than sitting inside and playing them," said one Fairfax County mother, who did not want to be named because she said the issue was too sensitive. "It used to be cops and robbers." Now there are video games with guns -- and airsoft.
Airsoft guns are required by federal law to bear bright orange markings so they do not look real, but the markings are often painted over or removed.
John Mirarchi, director of operations at airsoft importer JAG Precision in California, said the guns are designed for adults. Asked about confrontations between children and police, he said parents must take responsibility.
"Airsoft guns in most states are not regulated as toys," he added. "They are regulated as replica firearms because they are BB guns." Mirarchi said the company supports efforts for stronger laws against having the guns in public places. "We always tell people, 'Treat it like the real thing.' "
As for their realism, he said: "That's what the market drives. These aren't built for 14-year-old kids." Adults, he said, are interested in action pursuit games, and guns similar to those they see in "cool action movies."
Many serious airsoft enthusiasts play the game in designated airsoft fields or arenas, with set rules and required safety gear, similar to those used in paintball.
"Airsoft is becoming huge, but there's no place to play," said Jong Cha, who last month opened Tactical Airsoft Arena in Rockville, where players stalk around an indoor urban warfare setting.
The replicas, he said, are so accurate in dimension and weight that they fit in holsters made for real weapons. Police and military officers use airsoft for practice.
Tony Lee, 24, a dedicated airsoft player who said he would shoot only at designated sites such as Cha's, says they are safe and well run and entirely different from the "outlaw ball" played in back yards. "Outlaw ball is very dangerous," he said.
In Virginia, the Potowmack school incident prompted the Loudoun sheriff's office to issue a public warning about the danger of "giving airsoft BB guns to children."
Looking back, Loudoun schools spokesman Wayde Byard said, "the message to parents is you're playing with fire when you buy these." No police officer wants to take the chance "to see if a pellet comes out or a 9 millimeter bullet."
In early June, three teens drove near Lake Braddock Secondary School with an airsoft replica handgun, waving it around and alarming motorists, police said. One teen pointed the barrel at his head.
In Redwood City, Calif., in February, a 10-year-old boy held an airsoft gun to the head of a 6-year-old, demanding his Pokemon cards. In the Chicago suburbs several weeks ago, a 17-year-old shot a juvenile with an airsoft gun as the victim was riding his bike.
And in the Philadelphia suburb of Upper Darby, an 8-year-old brought an airsoft Luger handgun to school and later told police that she needed it for protection.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission has recommended that high-velocity BB and air guns (which fire projectiles at 350 feet per second or more) not be given to children under 16. Spokesman Scott Wolfson said 20,000 people showed up at emergency rooms across the country with BB and air gun injuries last year, including 11,500 children.
Locally, school districts report numerous instances in which airsoft or look-alike guns have been taken to school -- 30 last school year in Prince George's County, for example, and five in Montgomery County. In one Montgomery incident, a student "horsing around" fired at several other students, said Bob Hellmuth, director of school safety and security.
In Fairfax, there were 27 incidents in the 2006-07 school year with paintball, BB or pellet guns, and in four cases, guns were described as look-alikes. In Prince William County, officials counted three airsoft incidents last year.
For would-be criminals, airsoft guns are easy to get, with cheaper ones sold at sporting goods or discount stores for $10 to $100. Pricier models, selling from about $100 to $300, are available online or at specialty stores.
"I think the bad guys just try to get something that looks real," said Capt. Scott Whitcraft of the Charles County sheriff's office, which has pursued tightening laws for imitation guns.
Realistic-looking airsoft and pellet guns have been used in robberies in Bethesda, said Montgomery police Sgt. Mike Hartnett. Last month, he said, a replica gun was used in a road rage case.
In September 2005, two officers broke up a fight at a Frederick park and chased one of the assailants, Danni Rosales, on his 18th birthday. Rosales fell, and when he got up, he turned and pointed a gun at the officers.
Both officers fired.
Rosales went down.
Later, when his lifeless body was moved, investigators found the gun underneath. It was, they would discover, a BB-firing replica of a Walther PPK handgun.