Monday, January 23, 2006

Games using replica airsoft guns grow in popularity, but safety rules needed

If you haven’t heard about “airsoft” guns yet, you will.

It’s the hottest trend in what some call “pursuit sports” — think paintball meets G.I. Joe.

Played by both adults and youngsters, the lure — and the potential danger — of the game is the realistic-looking guns players use.

The risk became deadly apparent in Florida recently, when a distraught 15-year-old brought a realistic-appearing pellet gun to school and was fatally shot during a standoff with police.

Airsoft guns are replicas of the real thing, from handguns to assault rifles. Instead of using metal projectiles, like old-fashioned BB guns, they shoot 6mm plastic pellets.

Under New Hampshire law, the guns, which can be powered either by battery, spring-action or gas cartridges, can be sold only to those 18 and over.

And while the replicas are sold with orange tips to distinguish them from real weapons, the Florida youth had covered the orange paint with black. It’s something many airsoft players do, since the whole object of the game is to avoid detection while tracking and shooting enemies.

Airsoft guns are becoming increasingly popular among teenagers in New Hampshire. And while some play on organized teams at commercial fields, where strict safety rules are enforced by referees, others play a less organized version of the game, in backyards, fields and woods.

Game advocates say parents need to know the law, and establish strict rules about safety equipment and procedures, before buying their children guns and sending them outside to play.

Eric Lurette of Sandown, who has been playing “pursuit sports” for 22 years, said the law is clear: “If you’re under the age of 18, you shouldn’t be playing this anywhere if you’re not under direct adult guidance.”

And that means being outside if the kids are playing. “Sit out there to make sure everyone is OK.”

Strict warning
Parents also need to warn their kids, Lurette said, if a police officer approaches, “Put the gun on the ground and put your hands in plain view.”

“The kids should more or less have a simple script in their heads: ‘I am playing airsoft . . . There are 10 of us out here.’”

While most police officers are familiar with airsoft — many are even players —Lurette said it’s important to teach kids to follow any instructions an officer gives.

“This is a man with a gun. Yes, he’s there to protect you but he’s also there to protect himself.”

So who’s playing this game?

“It’s anyone from 14 to 60,” says Jeff Friedland, a co-owner of A & A Airsoft, which opened in Salem in September.

“We have everyone from nerds to metal heads, it’s the truth. People who are band geeks to people in a rock and roll band.”

Friedland, who is 40, has been playing airsoft for about 18 months and plays nearly every weekend at commercial fields.

All budgets considered
The guns he sells range from around $100 to the $6,000 Gatling gun replica one customer recently bought that fires 60 pellets a second. “You want to be on his team,” he said.

So what’s the appeal? “It’s just so much fun,” he confessed. “My ex-wife said I had a Peter Pan syndrome, and she really wasn’t far off.”

Friedland said he won’t sell airsoft guns above a certain velocity for use by minors. And he explains to their parents the importance of a full face mask.

“Personally, I only wear goggles,” Friedland said. “I’m missing a front tooth, too...”

That’s not uncommon, he admitted. “What I tell people is don’t giggle too much when you’re under fire...You leave your mouth open, you’re going to spit out chicklets.”

Friedland also warns customers in plain language about the dangers of these look alike weapons: “You can’t blame a cop for blowing you away if you point something like that at him.”

Tom Harritt of Hopkinton, 18, is a founding member of Cheese Eating Surrender Monkeys (it’s a reference from “The Simpsons”) — an airsoft team that also includes his father, Thomas, and younger brother, Dan, 14.

Bonding time
He said the sport has brought him a lot closer with his dad, who bought him his first electric rifle for his 16th birthday. “It puts you in a situation you’re not often in with a parent,” he said.

Harritt said he’s happy airsoft is getting more popular, but he believes it should be played on commercial fields. “The only thing I’m worried about is kids who’ll buy these guns ... and maybe not consider the fact that it does look exactly like a real firearm.”

What happened in Florida was “very tragic,” he said.

But he doesn’t blame the police. “Because they’re trained what to do when confronted with a real gun. And if it looks like a real gun, they can’t be expected to make any assumptions that it isn’t. You could have even more tragic results from that.”

For now, the only commercial airsoft field in New Hampshire is the Rockingham Paintball Club in Fremont. With ever-changing game scenarios, on-field referees and strict safety rules, the field is open for both adults and younger players, as long as their parents sign waivers and medical release forms.

Angel Galletly, owner of RPC, said she’s seen “explosive growth” in airsoft over the past year. And, she predicted, “It’s just going to keep getting bigger.”

“It’s the next paintball.”

Players say airsoft is safer — and a lot less messy — than paintball. Galletly likens a “hit” from an airsoft pellet to the snap of an elastic band.

“You can still get a welt from one of these pellets,” she said, “but it’s not like a paintball welt. An airsoft welt goes away very quickly.”

Popular with women
While most of the players are males, Galletly said she has some female players at her field. “A lot of them are really good, and the guys learn that the first time they play against them.”

Lurette is a former manager at the RPC. He said airsoft attracts former and current military personnel, police officers, firefighters and EMTs — “a lot of guys that are adrenaline junkies.”

He knows some players who served during Desert Storm. “It was cathartic for them to be able to relive what they did, but at the same time it wasn’t doing what they had to do for war.”

The younger players look up to these adults as heroes, Lurette said — and the game also makes teenagers think. “They go out there and they ‘die’ 17 times a day on the field. They think, there’s a kid two years older than me who’s in Afghanistan. And if he gets shot, he doesn’t get brought back to life.”

“For a lot of these kids, it’s really kind of a reality check.”

Another group of players hopes to open a commercial field in Canaan by this fall. Owner Cliff Rudder, a former Navy safety officer, said he won’t let anyone under 18 play.

“Our opinion is that the airsoft weapons are actually weapons,” he said. “They’re not intended to cause bodily harm, but the misuse or irresponsible use of them can cause bodily harm. And we just don’t feel in a commercial setting that people who aren’t of legal age should be using them.”

But he does believe airsoft can be a positive activity for youngsters. Instead of being inside playing computer games, kids are out playing in the woods like he did when he was young, Rudder said.

“This is something the kids in the neighborhood can go and spend less than $50 on and have hours and hours of harmless fun, as long as they follow basic safety precautions.”

Safety first
Rudder said even for adults, it’s important to keep the face and skin covered at all times. “Because some of these hotter guns up close will break your skin.”

He found that out himself recently when he pulled down his Kevlar hood to wipe his nose during a game. “I’ve got a mark on the end of my nose that hasn’t gone away for a month.”

Galletly offered some advice to parents considering buying airsoft guns for their children. “Call a field, call a retailer, go on-line and research it before you let your kid just jump right in. So you know what they’re getting into and what would be the best thing to do so they play as safely as they can.”

And, she went on, “If they go out in the backyard, go out and keep an eye on them.”

Meanwhile, Rudder believes New Hampshire law needs to be updated to include airsoft, just as it was six years ago to incorporate paintball. “Because the law as it is really does inhibit kids from going and playing,” he said. “And it does seem to be a sport that has a positive impact.”

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