Is It A Real Gun, Or Is It Airsoft? Airsoft guns are the hottest new type of toy replica guns. They shoot lightweight plastic BBs and are designed to look as real as possible — so real that police, teachers and parents often can't tell the difference.

Is It A Real Gun, Or Is It Airsoft?

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ROBERT SMITH, host:

Now, a story about a toy that brings such joy to the hearts of many teenage boys. It's called an Airsoft gun. And for those of you who are not teenage boys, I'll explain. They're BB guns that shoot plastic pellets, and part of the fun is that they're designed to look as real as possible. So real, in fact, that police officers and teachers and just about everyone else can't always tell the difference between the toy and the real thing. From member station KPLU, Chana Joffe-Walt has the story.

CHANA JOFFE-WALT: It was hot, the last day of school. Water balloons and shaving cream were flying across Main Street in Newman, California. Lieutenant Don Hutchins(ph) was on his bike patrolling when things turned. A frantic older woman pulled up and said she was worried about a kid in a car.

Lieutenant DON HUTCHINS (Police Officer, Newman, California): She tells us the type of car it is, with a bunch of male juveniles in it, and one of them had a gun.

JOFFE-WALT: It took them less than four minutes to find him, a 15-year-old in the driver's seat waving a Beretta '96 handgun, pointing it out the window. Another officer, Sergeant Limus(ph), yelled drop the weapon.

Sergeant LIMUS (Police Officer, Newman, California): We both drew our service weapons, pointed at the kid, telling him to drop the weapon, drop the weapon.

JOFFE-WALT: The kid turned towards Sergeant Limus. His gun turned with him, and it was that second, one second, Sergeant Limus readying his finger just as his eye spotted a tiny dot of orange on the barrel of the gun. It made him hesitate just for a second, and the kid dropped his weapon. It was a toy.

Sergeant LIMUS: If he would have pointed that at us, or at anybody else, for that matter, he would have been probably deceased at this point.

JOFFE-WALT: In Arkansas, a 12-year-old boy wasn't so lucky. He was walking outside his apartment complex with a replica toy gun and was shot and killed by police. Young people have been killed in similar circumstances in at least three other states, too.

Airsoft are the hottest new kind of toy replica guns. They shoot lightweight plastic BBs, and they have a bright orange tip. But the tips are pretty easy to break off or paint over, which happens a lot. So there are problems with the toys. But of course, those problems exist because people, especially young people, especially boys, adore them. So before you write Airsoft off or petition to ban the guns, let's just see the other side, the pure joy of play.

JOFFE-WALT: Hi. You must be Eric Deal. So how old are you turning?

Mr. ERIC DEAL (Airsoft Gun Fan): Fourteen.

JOFFE-WALT: Eric is the birthday boy. He lives in this western Washington house with this nice, big backyard, and this is his party, a nine-hour-marathon Airsoft battle because - well, Eric loves Airsoft.

Mr. DEAL: Well, I think they're cool because they're guns, and most boys like guns, and if they don't, they're weird.

Mr. DON MAJELIO(ph) (Airsoft Gun Fan): Amen.

JOFFE-WALT: That earned an amen from Don Majelio, another 14-year-old in camouflage and protective eyewear. Don explains the teams will soon move to opposite sides of the field to start. Everyone's got different strategies. His is pretty straightforward.

Mr. MAJELIO: I'm a spray-and-pray kind of guy. I just like to shoot.

JOFFE-WALT: Does it hurt when you get hit?

Mr. MAJELIO: Sometimes.

JOFFE-WALT: OK. And we're starting. I'm on Don and Eric's team.

Mr. MAJELIO: OK. I'll take a team of two down the main trail.

JOFFE-WALT: OK.

Mr. DEAL: Game on. Go! Go!

(Soundbite of Airsoft automatic gunfire)

JOFFE-WALT: Whoa. OK. We're creeping through the trail. Boys in lots of camo and vests are all kneeling behind little trees here. It's kind of scary.

(Soundbite of Airsoft automatic gunfire)

Unidentified Player #1: One down! One down! Did I hit you in the face? Sorry about that.

Unidentified Player #2: We need backup.

Unidentified Player #3: I love it.

(Soundbite of Airsoft automatic gunfire)

Mr. MAJELIO: We'll get to the tree and I'll cover you, and then I'll get to that pillbox right there.

JOFFE-WALT: I'm going to the box or you're going to the box?

Mr. MAJELIO: You're going to the tree.

JOFEE-WALT: OK. Ready?

Ms. MAJELIO: OK. Ready? Go.

JOFFE-WALT: Oh, I got hit!

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MAJELIO: She got it on the left side, got a couple.

JOFFE-WALT: That does hurt, by the way.

Unidentified Player #2: How did that feel?

JOFFE-WALT: It was fun!

I am totally pumped coming off the field. I go over and join the eliminated players on the porch, where Eric's mom is fanning herself next to the snacks. Rebecca Deal is here, hosting a nine-hour-battle, but she does have mixed feelings about toy guns, always has.

Ms. REBECCA DEAL: 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. So then comes Airsoft, and all of those rules were blown out of the water.

JOFFE-WALT: She saw how Airsoft drew her shy, quiet son out of the house and away from video games towards friends. So now she's OK with Airsoft in her backyard, but should she let him play at other kids' houses? What if no one tells the neighbors there are a bunch of kids with real-looking guns running around?

At the moment, there aren't many organized venues for kids to play Airsoft, so it's kind of up to parents to make these decisions. Eric and Don finish up the round winners, and join us on the porch. I start to tell them about Newman, California, that boy who was almost killed by the police, and before I'm even finished, Don starts shaking his head. He knows those kind of kids.

Mr. MAJELIO: They act like they're gangsters. They put the gun sideways and point it at random cars or something like that. It just ruins it because then like - like law enforcement will think about banning this toy just because of that one situation.

JOFFE-WALT: Some school districts and cities have already banned replica guns like Airsoft, and the Newman Police Department now wants to see a federal ban. The chief there sums the issue up this way: Young people see Airsoft as toys. They're pretending. They don't realize, he says, we are not.

For NPR News, I'm Chana Joffe-Walt in Port Orchard, Washington.

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