Some Games Can Have Deadly Consequences

My experience with replica weapons was anything but child’s play.

As I was hiking on one of the local trails with my dog recently, I noticed three middle-school-age boys wearing army fatigues and carrying guitar cases. Since I’m a music lover, my curiosity was piqued. My curiosity soon turned to panic, however, when I noticed the boys opening their cases, only to pull out what appeared to be assault rifles, not music instruments.

Since it’s my job as editor of Campus Safety to cover active shooter incidents, scenarios like Columbine and Virginia Tech began racing through my head. I immediately scrambled down the hillside to an area where I could get some cell service and called 9-1-1.

The area I’m referring to is rather rural with limited road accessibility, and describing the location to the police was no easy task. Despite my struggles, about 10 minutes later I saw an LAPD helicopter flying overhead to investigate, and I was instructed by the dispatcher to direct the helicopter pilot where to look.

Fortunately, the assault rifles in question were actually Airsoft guns. They are considered replicas, are almost indistinguishable from real firearms in side-by-side comparisons, and are used for paintball-style gaming, target practice, training and movie props. These products are required by law to have an orange tip on the barrel so no one confuses them with real weapons. In my case, however, the orange tips had been covered, which is a common practice among Airsofters so they won’t be easily detected by their opponents during play.

Although this incident turned out to be a false alarm and I felt rather foolish, the fear I felt that prompted me to call the police was very real. I wasn’t about to stick around to verify that these guns were just replicas. Nor was I willing to run the risk of not reporting the problem, only to later discover that the guns were used in a real crime.

The issues I have about these replicas are many — and I know lots of you share my concerns. The BBs from Airsoft guns can cause serious eye injuries to innocent bystanders who get in the way or to those not wearing protective eye gear. This risk is particularly great in public areas, be they rural parks or urban campuses. Additionally, the boys in my case were unsupervised minors. Considering the potential for injury, a parent or some other responsible adult should have been present.

Speaking of injuries, what if the police who responded to my call hadn’t recognized that the Airsoft products were actually replicas? One wrong move by the boys, and the officers would have been justified in using deadly force to defend themselves against the perceived threat. In 2006, a student in Longwood, Fla., for example, was shot dead by police when he threatened his classmates with one of these replicas. Unfortunately, this type of incident is not uncommon.

To take this a step further, criminals can use real weapons and paint the tips orange in an attempt to confuse responding police officers. How should law enforcement handle this scenario?

The amount of resources wasted as a result of my incident is another issue that troubles me. Dispatching a helicopter to a rural area is not cheap. That said, I am truly grateful to the LAPD for responding so quickly to my call for help.

I know that Airsoft and paintball-style gaming is a legitimate sport or training exercise when done under the right conditions and in accordance with the law. My experience with it, however, was anything but positive. From time to time, I’ve heard some of you express concerns regarding this issue. Well, now I really get it.

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