They shoot plastic pellets and have orange or red tips. But the plastic and metal airsoft guns popular among teens, tweens and adults who play military games can still be a threat -- to the owners.
The fake weapons are replicas of semiautomatics, sniper rifles, pistols and handguns. Police officers use them to train, but other people use them to play.
Sometimes playing can turn deadly. If people carrying a concealed weapon or a police officer sees the fake weapon and senses danger, they can legally shoot, officials said.
"It's a tragedy waiting to happen," said Grapevine Sgt. Bob Murphy.
Within a 13-day-period last month, officers in North Richland Hills had four incidents in which they aimed guns at teenage boys who appeared to be wielding a deadly weapon.
In one, police got a 911 call reporting that someone was walking around a neighborhood with a shotgun. Officers found a 14-year-old walking up his driveway with a gun. The patrol officer pulled out his weapon, trained it on the teen and asked him to drop the firearm. The teen absent-mindedly turned around -- with the toy pointed at the officer -- before dropping it to the ground, police Lt. Russ Juren said.
Another time, drivers reported seeing a teen pointing a gun at their cars. When officers spotted him, the 16-year-old started to run, then turned around with the gun pointed toward an officer. Fortunately, the officer was close enough to knock the weapon out of his hand. It was an airsoft gun.
In all of the North Richland Hills cases, the red or orange barrel tip that distinguishes airsoft guns had been painted over, covered in black electrical tape or snapped off, Juren said.
"They don't understand the seriousness of what they're doing," he said. "It's frightening, and the officers certainly would not want to be put in the position to take someone's life over a toy gun."
That's what happened in Seminole County, Fla. Christopher Penley, 15, went to school Jan. 13 with an airsoft gun in his backpack and told friends he wanted to die. Students who saw the gun, whose tip had been painted black, reported it. When officers arrived, Penley barricaded himself in the middle school bathroom. The teen walked out with the gun pointed at an officer. The gun looked real, and the officer fired. Penley died two days later.
"When they're in that situation, they have to err on the side of caution," said Kim Cannaday, a spokeswoman for the Seminole County Sheriff's Office. "A conscious decision was made by Penley to alter that gun and to make it look real."
Airsoft guns originated in Japan in the 1970s and have recently become popular in the United States. With air-driven plastic pellets, the guns are less dangerous than most paintball guns, retailers say.
The guns' appeal is their realistic look, said Brad Morris, owner of an airsoft arms store based in Milford, Ohio. Morris sells more than 100 types of airsoft guns -- which can cost between $20 to $1,500 -- online to law enforcement and customers across the United States, including many in the Dallas and Fort Worth area.
The guns come with a warning and are supposed to be purchased by adults 18 and older. But they are readily available at most sporting good stores, Wal-Marts and gun stores. Underage teens often purchase them with a parent or from less-than-vigilant stores, Morris said.
At Cheaper Than Dirt, a Fort Worth discount-ammunition store, most airsoft customers are teens and tweens who bring their parents to make the purchase, cashier Angel McClendon said.
"Just about every type of gun comes in a replica," Morris said. "It's really a fun and safe sport and we don't want to see anyone get hurt. But if you point something that looks like a real gun at an officer, they'll use deadly force."
Officers have only seconds to decide whether a weapon is real or fake, and the distinction is getting harder and harder. Some companies have started offering colored protective coatings for real guns. Wisconsin-based Lauer Custom Weaponry offers customized weapons in "electric colors" such as rose, cherry, sunburst and lavender -- bright colors typical of a toy. The weapons are intended for sport shooters who want to make a statement on the range and coordinate their outfits with their guns, owner Steven Lauer said.
"It's a bad idea for a whole bevy of reasons," Juren of North Richland Hills said. "It makes it even harder to determine what's real and what's not."
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