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Realistic pellet guns pose problems for law enforcement

The Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS- Popular new pellet guns that look remarkably like lethal weapons have gotten at least one teenager killed in Florida and caused scares at schools around the country in recent months.

Some Airsoft guns are powered by springs; others use gas canisters or batteries. The pellets can cause welts on the skin. (AP Photo/Steve Pope)
The guns are used to play a military-style game called airsoft, which is similar to paintball but cheaper and less messy, because the weapons fire plastic pellets instead of paint capsules that burst on impact.

Airsoft guns, though, are prized for their realistic design. Some resemble Glock, Smith & Wesson, Magnum and Beretta handguns and Kalashnikov assault rifles.

"The replicas really don't give our police officers time to think about 'Is this, or is this not, an airsoft weapon?'" said Tom Walsh, a spokesman for police in St. Paul, where a politician wants to tighten an ordinance to cover airsoft guns.

Toy guns -- airsoft guns included -- are required under federal law to have a bright orange tip to distinguish them from real weapons. But some people remove or blacken the tips.

That was the case last January in Seminole County, Fla., where 15-year-old Christopher Penley was shot to death by a SWAT officer while brandishing an airsoft pistol at a school. The muzzle of the 9mm-lookalike had been painted black.

"These replica firearms pose a problem not only for law enforcement, but I think the community as a whole," Chief Sheriff's Deputy Steven Harriett said Tuesday. "It's certainly a very difficult situation for a law enforcement officer to process whether or not they're facing an assailant who is clearly armed with a firearm that could cause harm to them, when these manufacturers make them so realistic."

Minnesota law already makes it a crime to have a fake gun on school property. St. Paul City Councilman Lee Helgen is calling for ordinance that would bar the carrying of replica guns in public.

Some other local governments are moving in the same direction.

After a 14-year-old boy with a BB gun was shot and wounded by police in Chicago over the summer, the City Council banned BB and pellet guns. And officials in Beaverton, Ore., are considering a ban on airsoft guns.

Gabe Stitzel, president and owner of the Minnesota Airsoft Association, said airsoft guns need to be handled with care by teenagers, and parents should get involved.

"Airsoft guns aren't toys. They really shouldn't be treated like that. They should be treated with the same respect as a real firearm," he said.

This fall alone:

--Two high schools in Apple Valley, Minn., were locked down after a 14-year-old used a fake gun to shoot plastic pellets at other students. Two other students in the district brought fake guns to school recently.

--In Melbourne, Fla., a 12-year-old boy was charged with aggravated battery for firing plastic pellets at elementary students at a bus stop.

--A 16-year-old Millwood, Wash., boy was arrested on suspicion of shooting two students with an airsoft pistol on their way to soccer practice.

--Two high school students in Hurricane, W.Va., were suspended for having a plastic-pellet gun on campus.

"We're running into about one of these guns in possession of a juvenile per week," said Scott Johnson, police chief in Apple Valley. "This is dangerous. This could get somebody killed."

Airsoft originated in Japan in the early 1980s and began appearing in North America in the 1990s. Some of the guns are powered by springs; others use gas canisters or batteries. Lower-end airsoft pistols can be bought online for less than $10. The pellets can cause welts on the skin, and players wear goggles and sometimes mouth guards.

Luke Heinz, a 16-year-old airsoft enthusiast in Adel, Iowa, said he loves the adrenaline rush he gets from darting through the woods near his home and taking aim at his pals while trying to dodge their fire.

When he travels with his realistic-looking guns -- a pistol, a sniper rifle with a scope, and an AK-47 -- he said he knows enough to put them in their cases and lock them in the trunk of his car. And he wouldn't dream of taking them to school.

"I just don't want to get into trouble," he said.

On the Net:

Minnesota Airsoft Association: http://www.mnairsoft.net

Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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