By Robin Schoettler Fox
The sight startled me. Dressed in fatigues and carrying a gun, the teen-ager looked like he could be a picture in the newspaper, a fresh-faced soldier too young to go to war. But it was a high school kid, walking along the wooded path of our neighborhood park. I would have called 9-1-1, but my 12-year-old, who recognized the teen, whispered, “I think it’s an Airsoft gun.”
Airsoft guns shoot lightweight plastic BBs that rarely cause serious injury if the recommended face protection is worn, but can put out an eye or chip a tooth if it isn’t. Increasingly popular among minors who use them for friend-to-friend combat games, Airsoft guns are on my sons’ wish lists. Under California law, though, adults have to buy Airsoft guns; minors can use them only with parental permission. That makes my husband and me part of a growing market segment – parents of kids who want Airsoft guns.
Airsoft games began as an adult sport with controllable safety issues. But in the hands of unsupervised minors, Airsoft guns can spell trouble because they look like real guns. Already police report that incidents of unsupervised minors with Airsoft guns are up. It’s just a matter of time, police say, before a police officer, mistaking an Airsoft gun for a real one, shoots a child.
That makes Airsoft guns a community issue with parents like me on the front lines, de facto regulators in an otherwise loosely governed market.
Parents decide which kids get Airsoft guns. Parents decide when and where and how they are used. We are the one group who can immediately reduce the impact of the look-alike risk. But when I sought advice from other parents, I realized that many of us are starting at the bottom of the learning curve, unfamiliar with Airsoft guns and unschooled in firearm safety. So I went in search of more information.
Many Parents are Clueless
Most Airsoft guns, I learned, are sold via the Internet. Sales are fragmented, market trends hard to quantify. But Peter Ho, co-owner of Airsoft Extreme, a Santa Clara Airsoft gun retailer, confirmed that youth interest is up. Ho has also noticed a disturbing trend: 15-20 percent of the parents who now come into Airsoft Extreme to buy Airsoft guns for their children are “clueless about guns.”
Ho gives parents Airsoft Extreme’s Airsoft Safety Guidelines (see sidebar) and asks them to sign the store’s liability waiver. Many times, though, parents don’t get it. How can these be dangerous? they ask. Aren’t they toys?
“They can’t seem to step outside themselves, from the outside looking in, and say, ‘Hey, this looks like a real gun,’” says Ho.
How real do Airsoft guns look? Go to Hobbytron.com, an internet site that claims the title, “The Web’s Most Popular Hobby/Educational/Toy Store.” You’ll find pictures of near-perfect replicas of better known pistols, rifles and assault weapons.
Product descriptions use phrases like “full scale,” “life-like,” “true to weight” and “highly realistic.” Imported as toy guns, federal law requires that Airsoft guns have “blaze orange” tips. But police say those tips are small and hard to see, particularly in low light. And owners often pry them off, or disguise them with tape or marker, exacerbating the “look-alike” risk.
Bottom line? If it looks like a gun and is handled like a gun, police officers say they have to treat it like a gun, even if it is in the hands of a child. The results can be disastrous.
“We don’t shoot to wound,” explained Robert Lopez, a career police officer who has been with the San Jose Police Department for the past 15 years, most recently working at the department’s gun range. “We shoot to stop the threat and stopping the threat is most likely stopping any movement of that individual.”
The scene rarely plays out like a Hollywood movie.
Most people have the misconception because you see these Wyatt Erp movies that you can shoot guns out of people’s hands or that you can shoot in the leg,” said Lopez. "In actuality, the adrenalin level gets pumped up in an officer so that you’d be hard-pressed to do a surgical hit on somebody. What you have to train people to do is shoot the center of mass. And, unfortunately, what’s center of mass on a chest? It’s somebody’s heart.”
The Playing Field
Most adults play Airsoft games on private lands or commercial Airsoft parks, options youth players don’t always have. Airsoft parks can be a long drive down the freeway. Some don’t accommodate younger players. Others post a minimum age of 13.
Kid-organized Airsoft games tend to be more public. They are played in yards, on neighborhood streets or in public parks. Sometimes, that’s legal. Current rules, usually governed by local ordinance, weren’t necessarily written with Airsoft guns in mind.
Common sense, says Ho, should rule. Parents need to tell kids to use Airsoft guns away from the public eye where no one will mistake the guns for real guns or be hurt by an errant BB.
Nonetheless, Airsoft guns are firearms, close cousins to real guns and require similar respect. Lopez bought his two sons, ages 13 and 10, Airsoft guns but he keeps those guns locked in a cabinet, just like any firearm, available to his sons only with express permission. The boys shoot their Airsoft guns at the gun range or on appropriate private land, and then only when they wear appropriate safety equipment and have direct adult supervision.
" It took a lot of money and a lot of effort to raise my kids,” said Officer Lopez. "They’re great kids. I don’t want anybody shooting at them unless I’m around.”
But the definition of "supervision” can be subjective. Not everyone takes it as seriously as Officer Lopez does. When Al Corso, president of the Martinez Gun Club, first saw his neighbors with Airsoft guns, they were running in the street with no eye protection, shooting at parked cars and into gardens.
“I told (their father) that it didn’t matter that he considered it a toy,” Corso recalled. “If it shoots a projectile, it is a gun … You haven’t taught them gun safety. When they get a real gun in their hands, how are they going to know the difference?”
“The key is education,” says John Geisness, a National Rifle Association (“NRA”) certified training counselor who teaches gun-handling courses throughout Northern California. Geisness recommends parents and minors both take at least the NRA’s Home Firearm Safety Course, a short non-shooting class.
Airsoft retailer Ho finds that he sometimes assumes a parenting role, and has refused to sell Airsoft guns to parents whose kids didn’t listen when he talked about safety issues.
What Parents are Saying
Although the surge in youth interest is new, some kids have used Airsoft guns for years. These families have first-hand Airsoft experience that can help the rest of us move up the learning curve. But that doesn’t mean they’re always comfortable sharing it.
Several parents winced when I first asked them about their children’s Airsoft use. Eventually, though, most parents agreed to talk but didn’t want to be quoted. They worried they’d be judged – for their parenting choices, their position on guns (often misperceived as “pro-gun”) or their children’s interests.
One mother, whose sons now play Airsoft games strictly supervised in her back yard rather then sneaking rogue ones at others’ houses, worried that parents who supervise Airsoft guns less strictly might think she was judging them.
Even without attribution, however, the feedback these families shared is useful. Taken as a whole, their comments paint a picture of kids doing something parents aren’t sure they like or understand.
No parent I could find woke up one morning and said, “Wow, I want my kids to have Airsoft guns.” Kids ask for them. They nudge. They whine. They make promises.
One 15-year-old who, along with his brother, was the first in his neighborhood to get an Airsoft gun, explained why: “We make our friends get the guns. (We) tell them how much money it is. Show them how cool they are.”
Most parents started out by buying low-end, low-powered, single-shot pistols at places like Big 5. Often parents bought clear-plastic models, reasoning these looked less real. Some kids tried these Airsoft guns then quickly lost interest. For others, the cheaper guns proved to be a gateway to higher powered replicas of semi-automatic assault weapons.
When parents balked at the cost, which can run hundreds of dollars, kids spent their own money.
Some parents have told me they said yes to Airsoft guns because they figured they couldn’t say no to everything. Airsoft guns were the least of the evils, safer than pellet guns, less messy than paintball ones. Others said they had bigger parenting issues – drugs, sex, grades. One mother said she’d do almost anything to get her child off the computer and outdoors.
Ho says younger Airsoft players tend to be “gamers,” kids who play so-called single-shooter video games who want replicas of the guns used in those video games. Parents filled out the picture.
“They get all fired up doing these video games for like an hour or two,” one parent observes, “Then they go play and act them out.”
Firearm education. Industry information. Shared first-hand Airsoft experience. All that, combined with our knowledge of our kids and our own gut feelings, helped my husband and me figure out how to do our part to help mitigate the Airsoft look-alike risk.
Things to Consider
If your child asks for an Airsoft gun, will you grant permission? Here are some thoughts to help you decide:
“Airsoft” sounds safe but Airsoft guns are firearms. They shoot plastic BBs that can put out an eye or chip a tooth unless face protection is worn.
Kids shoot Airsoft guns at each other. Airsoft games are typically friend-to-friend skirmishes.
Many Airsoft guns look real enough to fool the police. Used by unsupervised minors these look-alike guns could prove fatal.
Police incidents of minors with Airsoft guns are up. Sometimes this is just kids playing Airsoft games in the wrong place. Someone sees the guns and calls 9-1-1.
But increasingly, it is kids using Airsoft guns in the wrong way, perhaps shooting the postal carrier, a neighbor or a car.
Federal regulations do little to mitigate the “look-alike” risk. Manufactured in Asia as gun replicas, Airsoft guns are imported legally into the United States under federal toy gun regulations, which require only that they have bright orange tips police say are small and hard to see.
Finding a place for kids to play Airsoft games is a challenge. “Legal” isn’t the only bar. Keep play in secluded areas out of the public eye and far from anyone who might get hit by an errant BB. Commercial Airsoft parks exist but they often have age restrictions.
Industry experts say Airsoft gun risks are controllable, but it takes more than buying face protection. Be prepared to do the following
Learn and follow firearm safety guidelines.
Teach your child safe gun handling rules and make sure he uses them.
Buy and make sure your child uses a full face mask (such as a paintball mask).
Keep Airsoft guns locked and accessible only with express permission.
Provide an appropriate place for your child to play Airsoft games.
Actively supervise Airsoft games. Know the rules. Watch them play.
Make sure the orange tip stays on and clearly visible.
Talk with parents of your child’s friends. Make sure you understand their Airsoft rules.
KIDS SHOULD KNOW
Always point an Airsoft gun in a safe direction.
Always keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot.
Never point your Airsoft gun at another person or animal.
Always remove the magazine and/or disconnect the battery until you are ready to use the gun – simply turning on the safety is not enough.
When playing with Airsoft guns, you and everyone around you must be at least wearing eye protection – full face masks are highly recommended.
The orange tip does not protect you: most people do not know about Airsoft guns and they will assume that these are real guns.
Use Airsoft guns only in areas where it is not prohibited by law.
Do not use or display Airsoft guns in public places such as schools, parks, etc.
Always transport Airsoft guns inside a box or a bag.
When using Airsoft guns, make sure everyone within view of you understands what you are playing with and what you are doing.
If a law enforcement officer approaches you while you are using Airsoft guns, immediately stand still and put the gun down.
If a neighbor or nearby person asks you to stop playing with your Airsoft guns, immediately stop and store away your guns.
If you use your Airsoft guns to threaten another person or vandalize property, you will be charged with a committing a serious crime.
Source: Airsoft Extreme’s Airsoft Safety Guidelines, c. 2004
Information about basic firearm safety is available at any firearms dealer. Or contact: The National Rifle Association’s Education and Training Department at 703-267-1430 or go to www.nrahq.org/education/guide.asp
NRA-certified Northern California gun instructor John Geisness at 925-674-1920