Airsoft guns can bring real danger

Toy gun makers strive to make their guns look as much like the real thing as possible. Such realism makes it hard for police to determine if the toys and those holding them are a threat. - Lisa Yarost/Flickr
Toy gun makers strive to make their guns look as much like the real thing as possible. Such realism makes it hard for police to determine if the toys and those holding them are a threat.
— image credit: Lisa Yarost/Flickr

The gun barrels, magazine clips and pistol grips of toy pellet guns commonly played with by teens look all too real, Island police say. And play fighting with these toy weapons in public is a growing safety concern on the Island.

This year, Island police officers have had some close calls with teens brandishing or playing with these common, realistic looking pellet guns, generally called Airsoft guns. As a result, officers want parents and teens to understand that the weapons look too real to be played with irresponsibly, such as in public.

Island Detective Art Munoz hopes parents will become more aware of the dangers and consequences of public displays of such weapons, especially if they knew that many real guns also look like toys.

“There’s no way an officer can tell the difference,” Munoz said about the difference between a toy replica and real firearm. “The weight, the look. They (the manufacturer) want it to look real.”

Youth playing with these toy guns in public is a growing problem for police nationwide. In Washington state, police from Bremerton to Spokane have made arrests recently for teens bringing guns to school, shooting pedestrians from building rooftops near a day care to firing at a Santa Claus at the mall.

Such incidents are no joke to police. Munoz, the city’s School Resource Officer, teaches a class on dangerous weapons at the high school. He routinely shows the students pictures of real assault rifles and hand guns to show them how similar they look. A quarter to half of students he teaches say they have air guns, he said.

The police often receive calls about air guns being reported by the public, too, Munoz said.

According to a 2005 study done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 19,675 non-powder gun injuries were treated in United States emergency rooms that year. Of these injuries, 71 percent involved individuals 20 or younger. Although the study was not limited to only airsoft guns, the toy guns can fire at speeds of hundreds of feet per second. Many hospitals and healthcare professionals throughout the country have reported a significant rise in airsoft-related eye injuries in recent years.

The toy guns are easy to find and cost as little as $40. According to an airsoft gun supplier’s Web site, the toy guns are manufactured to look real as they are used in simulation war games as a modern combat sport or recreational hobby similar to paint ball. The tips of toy guns are painted by manufacturers with orange to distinguish them from the real thing. However, many enthusiasts paint out the orange to make them more authentic.

“In [my] class I try to educate students that they cannot be in public with these toys,” Munoz said. “And I always say that if they are contacted by an officer while with an air gun, to listen to their commands.”

In the past year, there have been several incidents when Mercer Island officers have responded to calls of concern involving teens with these realistic toys.

The most recent occurred on Nov. 30 in the North end QFC parking lot. According to the police report, some juveniles were driving around the Island shooting pellets at pedestrians and one another from their cars when their game of war moved to the grocery store parking lot. It was there that officers contacted the youths — not immediately knowing if the guns were toys. Munoz said the boys might be in legal trouble for such play. He said the consequences of air gun play can range from minor infractions to serious charges of illegal use of weapons to aggressive police actions.

A similar incident took place on New Year’s Eve last year at the high school.

That night, an officer responded to a call reporting several juveniles with guns at the high school around 10:30 p.m. Officer J. Haraway found four youths with weapons at the school and ordered them to the ground at gun point. He disarmed the individuals only then finding that the guns were realistic toy air guns. Police later called the boys’ parents together to inform the youths of the dangers of playing in public with these toy weapons. The guns, two mock pistols and three automatic assault rifles or “Uzis” were confiscated and placed into evidence.

Another case of irresponsible use occurred on the Island last year in April. In that incident, a 16-year-old Islander was shot three times with a pellet gun around 6:30 p.m. while walking in the 7000 block of 84th Avenue S.E. According to the police report, two other teenagers with an Airsoft rifle fired at the teen as they drove by in a car. In another case, school security personnel found an airsoft pellet rifle in a student vehicle parked in the high school parking lot on May 2.

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