Is It A Real Gun, Or Is It Airsoft?

Cody Tucker holds an Airsoft gun. i i

hide captionCody Tucker of Washington state helped celebrate a friend's 14th birthday with a nine-hour Airsoft battle.

Chana Joffe-Walt for NPR
Cody Tucker holds an Airsoft gun.

Cody Tucker of Washington state helped celebrate a friend's 14th birthday with a nine-hour Airsoft battle.

Chana Joffe-Walt for NPR
The camouflaged revelers at the birthday bash. i i

hide captionThe camouflaged revelers at the birthday bash.

Chana Joffe-Walt for NPR
The camouflaged revelers at the birthday bash.

The camouflaged revelers at the birthday bash.

Chana Joffe-Walt for NPR

On a hot afternoon, the last day of school, two police officers on patrol in Newman, Calif., got a report from a frantic older woman about a teenager in a car, armed and seemingly brazen. They located the boy in minutes.

There he was. A 15-year-old sitting in the driver's seat of a vehicle and carelessly pointing what looked to be a Beretta 96 handgun out the window.

The two police officers approached the car.

"We both drew our service weapons and pointed it at the kid and telling him to drop the weapon. Drop the weapon," one officer said.

But the teen turned toward the commanding voice, pointing the gun where he looked. During the second it took the officer to ready his finger on the trigger, he spotted a tiny dot of orange on the teen's gun barrel. He hesitated, and the kid dropped his weapon.

It was a toy. In fact, it's a toy that seems to be landing in the hands of young people more and more.

Airsoft guns are the hottest new type of toy replica guns. They shoot lightweight plastic BBs, come in models ranging from sniper guns to machine guns, and can cost hundreds of dollars. Their bright orange tips help distinguish them from real guns, but the tips are pretty easy to break off or paint over. And the Airsoft guns are designed to look as real as possible — so real that police, teachers and parents often can't tell the difference.

In Arkansas, police shot and killed a 12-year-old boy walking outside his apartment complex with a replica toy gun. Young people have been killed in similar circumstances in at least three other states.

The Airsoft guns are especially popular among teenage boys.

"I think they're cool 'cuz they're guns, and most boys like guns and if they don't they're weird," says Eric Deal of Washington state, who was celebrating his 14th birthday with a nine-hour Airsoft battle with friends in his backyard.

His mom, Rebecca Deal, says she has mixed feelings about the toy guns.

"When my children were little, we had rules. You don't shoot each other. We could shoot monsters, aliens, dinosaurs and robots because they weren't real," she says. "So then comes Airsoft, and all of those rules were blown out of the water."

On the other hand, she says, Airsoft helped her normally shy son make friends and get out of the house, away from video games.

Some school districts and cities have already banned replica guns like Airsoft. And the Newman police department wants to see a federal ban.

The police chief sums up the issue this way: Young people see Airsoft toys — they're pretending; they don't realize we are not.

Chana Joffe-Walt reports from member station KPLU.

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