Friday, January 13, 2006

Florida 8th-grader wielding pellet airsoft gun shot down

A 15-year-old Florida boy who brandished a pellet gun at school was on life support Friday after he was shot by a deputy during a confrontation.
Last week, a fourth-grader in San Bernardino brought a similar gun to school and sprayed plastic pellets at his classmates during recess. No lives were lost, but some of the students hit had bruises.

There's no waiting period, no background check, no license needed to own one of these guns -- but even retailers say they should not be considered toys. They look, feel and operate like the real thing. The difference is, these guns aren't lethal -- although some say they are still dangerous.

A growing number of homicides involving children and teens in San Bernardino and surrounding cities has heightened awareness of violence in the community and also what prompts it -- including whether having children familiar with deadly weapons, fake or real, is a contributing factor.

Considered a sport by some and a dangerous pastime by others, the growing popularity of so-called ``airsoft'' pellet or BB guns have made them a favorite with all ages. But even airsoft enthusiasts and retailers say the guns are not toys and should be treated with safety in mind.

It was an airsoft pellet gun a fourth-grader at Davidson Elementary School in San Bernardino brought to campus last week. He shot at some classmates during recess. Although none of the children were seriously injured, several were hit by the plastic rounds from the imitation gun, leaving some students bruised and many parents shaken.

The heightened awareness of violence in homes, schools and the community in recent months has prompted school officials to take the incident at Davidson seriously, said Art Delgado, superintendent of the San Bernardino City Unified School District.

School officials are sending out a districtwide mailer to parents asking them to monitor students' backpacks and what they are bringing to school.

Delgado said he was concerned many pellet guns are being sold at swap meets or 99-cent stores that do not have the type of regulations in place such as Wal-Mart.

``I don't think any parent would buy it with the thought in mind that their child is going to take it to school,'' he said.

Christopher Penley, the eighth-grader shot and wounded by a SWAT team officer in a suburban Orlando school bathroom, brought the gun to school in his backpack, authorities said.

Sheriff Don Eslinger said two Milwee Middle School students saw the toy gun and one persuaded the other to report it, causing a scuffle.

Penley allegedly ordered one of the students into a closet, dimmed the lights and ran from the classroom. Deputies eventually isolated him in a restroom, and the school was evacuated. Negotiators tried unsuccessfully to start a dialogue with the boy, Eslinger said.

The boy did not respond, Eslinger said.

When the boy raised the gun at a deputy, he shot the youth, the sheriff said. Penley was taken to a hospital, where he was on ``advanced life support.''

No one else was injured. The sheriff's office later confirmed the weapon was a pellet gun fashioned to look like a 9-mm handgun. The tip of the gun had been painted black, covering brightly colored markings that would have indicated it was nonlethal.

Delgado called the incident in Longwood, Fla., ``every parent's and community's nightmare.''

For some, "airsoft" guns are simply recreational equipment that can be used responsibly.

The sport originated in Japan in the 1980s and the guns are used in marksmanship or recreational training games similar to paintball. Depending on the model, the replica guns are spring-loaded and gas- or battery-powered.

``It's the fastest-growing action pursuit sport,'' said Joe Hulog, manager of the Airsoft Extreme shop in San Diego.

Safety is key when handling even imitation firearms, said Hulog, who runs an airsoft team known as Omega Force Airsoft.

Safety is the ``No. 1 priority'' for most airsoft enthusiasts, who follow the same regulations as with paintball, using full face masks and sealed goggle protection.

``We emphasize safety,'' said Hulog, whose team has played with children. ``Any time you handle a replica firearm, you have to teach the children about gun safety because it looks and feels and works the same as a regular firearm and must be taught about the dangers."

Customers must also sign a waiver stating they are 18 and will play only on private property or a regulated sporting facility or field, Hulog said.

Wal-Mart also sells the Airsoft pellet guns in its sporting goods section but raised the age restriction for buying them from 16 to 18 in 2003, said Karen Burk, spokeswoman for Wal-Mart's corporate office. Prices are $15 and up.

``We certainly recognize that this item is not a toy,'' Burk said. ``As a responsible retailer, we treat them with the same respect as a firearm.''

The store's cash registers are even set to prompt the cashier to ask for identification verifying a customer's age when purchasing the product, she said.

``This is an item that you want to make sure does not get into the wrong hands,'' Burke said.

Yucaipa resident Larry Brewer, who has two sons, said he has never allowed his children to play with imitation or toy guns.

Children who play with pellet guns ``have no regard for what a weapon can do,'' Brewer said. ``If you give your kids that kind of a gun, you're teaching your kids how to use a weapon.''

In September 2004, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation prohibiting pellet or BB guns from being displayed in public, unless they are made of clear plastic or painted a bright color to ensure they won't be mistaken for real firearms.

The law allows prosecutors room to bring extra charges if a toy gun is displayed at a public building, airport or a school campus.

The mandate also requires that imitation guns manufactured and sold in California after July 1, 2005, come with a warning label informing the purchaser about the law. Breaking the law can result in consequences that range from a fine of $100 to a misdemeanor.

Federal law also requires retailers to sell guns outfitted with a plastic orange tip that keeps it from being mistaken for a real weapon. Altering or removing markings on a replica gun, such as the orange tip, is illegal.

John Lovell, a lobbyist for California Police Chiefs Association and a former Los Angeles County prosecutor, said even markings like the orange tip may not be enough because they can be removed.

Jeanie Kocher, whose daughter was hit by the plastic rounds her classmate fired at Davidson Elementary, had bought her own son a similar pellet gun. She now regrets buying it and has since destroyed it.

``Oh, my God,'' she said. ``What was I thinking?''

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