Sunday, February 05, 2006

Police: Airsoft guns illegal in city limits

FRIENDSWOOD — From Internet sites to large retailers, Airsoft guns are a popular item. They look and handle like real weapons. Military-like sporting leagues around the world have formed around them.

A game that started in Asia in the 1980s has officially spawned a global subculture of faithful followers.

The guns shoot a soft pellet, and people who use the weapons are basically “playing army,” according to the Web site for the Texas Airsoft Organization.

But just in case some Friendswood residents haven’t checked city ordinances lately, the police department has issued a reminder and a warning: Discharging those guns within city limits is against the law and could potentially have mortal consequences.

A 15-year-old Florida boy was shot and killed by police last month after he brought a replica 9mm — painted to look real — to his school and threatened to kill himself and classmates. A 17-year-old Washington state student brought such a gun to school, causing officials to arrest him and shut down the school for 15 minutes.

Friendswood police received a frantic 9-1-1 call on Christmas saying a man was shooting at The Enclave at Quail Crossing, 5000 Watkins Way.

When officers arrived, they learned the man was shooting an Airsoft pellet rifle at a friend in a first floor apartment balcony.

However, the replica rifle closely resembled an M-16, a rifle used by the military.

And that’s the problem, said Friendswood police.

When brandishing or discharging these replica weapons, the public doesn’t know that they are not real — and neither do police who get the panicked calls and who rush to disarm a threatening situation.

It’s hard for officers to distinguish between the replica and the real thing, said Friendswood Police Chief Bob Wieners.

“In a split second, if you’re coming across someone with that replica weapon in a daylight situation, it’s hard to distinguish, and it’s virtually impossible to distinguish in low light,” he said. “All you’d see is the silhouette of the weapons.”

The city’s police department has responded to several calls involving soft pellets and paintball guns.

The Airsoft guns are fast sellers. They cost $20 to $430.

Ed McDowell, manager of Academy in League City, said during the Christmas holidays, he sold 50 to 60 Airsoft guns a day. He said the store now sells 30 to 40 of the pellet guns a week.

“They are very popular among young adults and teens,” he said.

Academy’s Airsoft weapons range from $18 to $50.

The guns are supposed to be color-coded to delineate between replica and real weapons.

They can, however, be converted and painted to resemble real weapons.

The league and the Texas Airsoft Organization, however, said that safety is stressed when using the replica weapons. In a section of its Web site, the organization admits that replicas’ resemblance to real firearms causes a “special set of problems” for Airsoft players, parents and police.

The organization also focuses on discretion and safety when transporting or discharging the weapons.

Neither the Houston Airsoft Community nor Texas Airsoft Organization supports using the weapons outside of approved Airsoft sites.

They stress that the guns firing soft pellets be handled like the real thing.

Area Airsoft leagues, such as the Houston Airsoft Community, sponsor Web forums and attend military-like operations across the state and throughout the country. Concerned by the number of weapons or firearms calls and the possibility of someone getting hurt, police are hoping to quell the recent spike by reminding residents of the city ordinances that forbid firearm discharges and the legal ramifications: a class C citation with a fine totaling $260.

The ordinance also applies to paintball, pellet and BB guns.

The fines, however, are still secondary to safety concerns for the general public and the Airsoft gun holders.

“There’s a good reason these replica type of weapons are prohibited in city limits and used only at locations where responsible play can be undertaken,” said Wieners. “The Friendswood Police Department is a strong advocate of individuals’ rights to pursue those interests. But those in violation of the law who discharge the weapons are putting themselves at risk. They have the potential to alarm the community, and the potential to cause serious harm to themselves.”

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