YUCAIPA - Yucaipa-Calimesa schools Superintendent Mitch Hovey remembers the day a San Bernardino County sheriff's deputy mistook a laser-tag gun for the real thing and opened fire on a 19-year-old Rancho Cucamonga teen, killing him.
Hovey doesn't want a replay of that 1987 incident happening on any of his campuses and is asking parents to scratch realistic soft-air pellet guns and other replica firearms off their holiday gift lists this year.
Several look-alikes have been confiscated from elementary-age children on Yucaipa campuses in recent months, he said, and at least one expulsion proceeding is under way. A couple of others have been referred for expulsion review.
Other Inland educators said they, too, are seeing more replica handguns on campus and worry about potential tragedy.
Dianne Pavia, spokeswoman for Riverside Unified School District, said school officials have confiscated four look-alikes at different elementary campuses in just the last two weeks and about a dozen overall from various primary-grade students since the end of last school year.
"Parents for the most part don't know their kids have them because they're buying them from the ice-cream man," she said. "It's apparently a popular item and they're selling them right off the truck for $5."
Greg Vojtko / The Press-Enterprise
Sport Shack owners Howard and Pat Reeves display some the AirSoft and BB guns, including a realistic Crosman 760B repeater.
Pavia said principals have gone to classrooms and explained to students it illegal to bring any kind of firearms on campus -- real or imitation.
"These are expellable offenses," Pavia said.
Hovey said he worries about more look-alikes showing up on campus as the holidays arrive.
"With Christmas coming, I'm afraid parents will be buying their kids what they think are toys," Hovey said. "But if a kid brings it to school and the cops are called, my main concern is that sooner or later some law-enforcement officer is going to mistake one for a real gun. Officers are trained to engage and I don't want anyone getting hurt."
Yucaipa police recently raised the alert at a task-force meeting with school administrators.
"One of the officers brought in a couple of soft-air guns," Hovey said. "They have a magazine you can pull out and they're weighted like a real gun. "
Soft-air guns are designed to fire small plastic pellets and, depending on their design, operate by spring, compressed gas or electrically.
The newer generation replicate real semi-automatic firearms such as the 9 mm Sig Sauer P226, the .45-caliber Colt 1911 and 9 mm Israeli Micro Uzi.
Hovey said possession of any replica handgun on school grounds violates the state Education Code and automatically starts the expulsion process. District administrators have discussed the situation with school principals, he said, and will get the word out to parents through quarterly and monthly newsletters.
Howard and Pat Reeves, owners of the Sport Shack on Yucaipa Boulevard, sell several models of soft-air and BB guns. Their policy is not to sell them to anyone under 18.
"As a business owner, you can't sell what you like. You have to sell what sells," Pat Reeves said. "But if the kids don't come in with a parent, they don't get it. So at least I can sleep at night."
Federal law requires manufacturers to place an orange ring around the barrel of soft-air guns to distinguish them as nonlethal. However, Lt. Jerry Davis, of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's substation in Yucaipa, said he would "dare anybody" to tell the difference between some replicas and the real thing at night.
Davis said deputies are trained to look for the orange ring to make sure they do not inadvertently open fire on someone holding a look-alike but the safeguard is no guarantee against tragedy. While earlier paint-ball guns had big canisters on top of them, making them easily identifiable, newer models resemble real assault weapons and high-powered handguns, he said.
"It looks like somebody's carrying an AR-15 or M-16 assault weapon," he said. "I've seen .45-caliber semi-automatic replicas. They're making whatever they want to make. They're not illegal."
How these "toys" can produce tense situations became clear about four months ago when Yucaipa sheriff's deputies responded to reports of men in camouflage carrying assault weapons near a housing tract.
"When the first deputy approached, they scattered and tried to hide. Now the deputy is thinking he's under assault," Davis said. "It just got uglier from there. Five units ended up responding. It turned out to be a bunch of 16- and 17-year-old kids with soft-air guns acting dumb -- exactly the kind of thing that can escalate."