Relatives of people killed or injured by acts of gun crime clashed with sporting enthusiasts yesterday over the government's plans to restrict the manufacture and sale of imitation and replica firearms.
Members of the Gun Control Network (GCN), many of whom have personal experience of tragedies caused by the use of illegal weapons, hit out at an international campaign being run by devotees of paintball and the similar but more militaristic airsoft shooting events.
Airsoft guns are plastic and fire 6mm or 8mm pellets. They originated in Japan in the 1980s and are said to be more accurate and to offer greater range than their paintball equivalents. There are thought to be 10,000 regular airsoft players and 70 sites around the UK which host events or "skirmishes".
The airsoft shooters say the government's violent crime reduction bill will effectively kill their hobby because the low-velocity guns, which fire plastic pellets, would be classified as "realistic imitation firearms". Equipment now held would be unaffected but the sport would be unable to obtain new equipment.
Airsoft shooters have begun a campaign to pressure MPs and promote their sport, bolstered by support from enthusiasts in the US, Canada and Japan.
But anti-gun protesters argue that the shooters should be willing to switch to less lifelike weapons in the cause of public safety. They point out that a significant proportion of gun crimes committed in Britain involve imitation and replica weapons.
Steve Walker of GCN said: "We don't want to stop them enjoying their sport.The problem is the weapons they use. If they were brightly coloured and distinguishable from real guns there would be no problem."
Mr Walker, whose sons Alex, 17, and Andrew, 26, were murdered in 2001 by a paranoid psychotic with a reactivated weapon, said emotions are running high.
"We have got abusive emails from the airsoft shooters, paintballers and people who support the owning of firearms for self defence. But our position is clear. If it looks like a gun it should not be allowed."
Gill Marshall-Andrews, GCN's chair, said: "No one needs a realistic imitation gun - except perhaps a re-enactment society. Paintball and airsoft guns do not have to look like the real thing. A green plastic gun would not be affected by the new legislation. If it's not lethal and does not look like a real firearm then there is no problem."
But Frank Bothamley, who runs Free Fire Zone, an airsoft event site in Cambridgeshire, said enthusiasts felt "persecuted". He added: "We are an easy target. We are a minority group. I think this is a tip of the iceberg thing. If they ban this will it be rifles, shotguns and other things.
"The government wants to stop 15- and 16-year-old's from being on the streets with airsoft guns which they buy from street traders for between £5 and £30. People also carry them as accessories because they look a bit flash. But people who do this as a proper hobby have guns which cost £100 to £600. They look after them."
He said manufacturers aimed to make the guns look real and would be unlikely to stop doing so just for a British market worth less than £10m. "People around the world want guns that look like real guns."
Parts of the US dictate that the guns should have orange bands around the ends to distinguish them from real firearms. "That would be the sensible thing to do," Mr Bothamley said. "The argument is that people would take the band off but if they did and they were caught they should be prosecuted. It is worth remembering that no one has ever been killed with an airsoft gun."
The pastime is straightforward - participants in military clothes hunt and shoot each other. But for the purposes of this debate it has taken on philosophical overtones. Enthusiasts quote Lord Salisbury and his call for a land where "people are allowed, so long as they do not hurt their neighbours, to do as they like".
However, detractors say they must address the practical issues on the street. Figures released this year show decreases in the number of offences involving shotguns, handguns and rifles but increases in those in which imitation guns, deactiviated guns and blank firing weapons were used. Offences involving stun guns and paintball guns also increased.
Mr Walker, 62, a former Bedfordshire police officer, remains haunted by the shooting of his sons. "We just want to get guns off the street," he said. "The frightening thing is how many there are."