Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Police warn about air guns after teenager is nearly shot

Manhattan Beach police Sgt. Robert Cochran heard the call come over the radio: Two men with rifles atop a storage shed at Polliwog Park.

The report came the same day terrorists struck in London.

Cochran, the first officer to arrive, saw the men, took high ground, pointed his rifle at them and looked through the scope.

"There was a bunch of kids on the playground," Cochran said. "I'm thinking, 'Are these guys here to shoot kids?' "

Cochran could see the butt of a rifle sticking out of a case. Three other police officers arrived, surrounded the men and aimed their guns at them.

Just as one man looked as if he was going to pull the rifle out of the case, officers yelled for him to drop the weapon.

"Immediately he drops it," Cochran said. "Thank goodness. I was scared he was pulling a rifle out."

Cochran said he likely would have fired to protect his fellow officers and possibly killed the man.

Had he fired, Cochran would have shot a 17-year-old boy videotaping a homemade movie with a couple of friends.

"There was no doubt in my mind it was a real gun," Cochran said.

The call -- and avoidance of a tragedy -- prompted Manhattan Beach police to issue a warning for teenagers and their parents for the second time in two years.

Airsoft guns, which shoot plastic pellets and are meant for target practice, look real and can be mistaken by police officers as a deadly threat, Manhattan Beach police Capt. Randy Leaf said.

"Police officers, when they get a call of something, they don't know what the story is," Leaf said. "They have to assume it's a man with a gun. Things could go bad pretty quickly."

Two more incidents occurred in the next few days, sparking a decision by authorities that the public needs to be warned that such guns pose a deadly threat to the shooter, and that they are illegal to discharge in the city.

• At 8:37 p.m. July 8, a police officer on patrol saw something fired from the back and side windows of a pickup truck as it turned from Manhattan Beach Boulevard to Sepulveda Boulevard.

The officer, believing the shooter was firing at two bicyclists, stopped the truck. As he did, someone called police to report being shot in the left thigh by the occupants of the truck.

Police cited the teens and confiscated four airsoft handguns, an airsoft rifle and five containers of plastic BBs.

• At noon Monday, police received a call of a drive-by shooting at Highland and Marine avenues. A pedestrian was shot by someone with an airsoft gun as he walked down the street.

Airsoft guns fire round plastic BBs or ceramic projectiles. According to police, many will fire a 6 mm projectile at speeds up to 310 feet per second.

Manhattan Beach has a law making it illegal to shoot an air gun without a permit from the chief of police. The code includes airsoft guns, BB guns, slingshots, bows and arrows and firearms.

"The greatest concern to law enforcement officers is the way these guns look and feel," Leaf said. "Most airsoft guns mimic the style and design of a real firearm."

Two years ago, Manhattan Beach police issued a warning about the guns after a teenager playing on the roof of Grand View Elementary School turned and fired an airsoft gun at a police officer.

Tragedy was averted because the officer realized the gun was a toy.

Federal law mandates that airsoft guns carry an orange band around the barrel, but police officers sometimes have trouble seeing them, Leaf said.

Joey Vigil, who sells air guns at Airsoft Extreme in Torrance, said these guns have grown in popularity in the last few years.

"I tell my customers to treat them like real guns, not to show up with them in public. I like pre-qualify them," Vigil said. "If they don't have the mental capacity to own guns, I won't sell it to them or if they are acting stupid."

Cochran said airsoft guns should be used at home and not brought out into public like the boys did at the park.

"Were they doing anything against the law? No," Cochran said. "Could it have gotten them killed? Yes."

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