Saturday, July 12, 2008

Airsoft guns pack a wallop

As misnomers go, airsoft is a whopper. I should know. I was shot recently from close range with one of the large plastic BBs fired by one of the imported air guns, which are the latest backyard sensation among kids in many Canadian communities like this one.

Even through blue jeans, the 6-mm BB, which is roughly twice the size of a standard metal BB and half as big as a paintball projectile inflicted a sting similar to an elastic band being snapped hard against bare skin.

In other words, it hurt like hell. And it gave me an immediate appreciation for the potential danger of these unregulated weapons in the hands of thrill-seeking youngsters with little or no understanding of basic gun safety.

While there are no hard numbers about the prevalence or severity of injuries caused by airsoft guns in Canada, the director of the trauma programs at Montreal's Children's Hospital says they are starting to become a cause for concern in Quebec. "So far we've been lucky in that we haven't seen the numbers and kinds of severe injuries we see that are caused by BBs and paintballs," said Debbie Friedman. "But we're beginning to see more and more cases."

According to Friedman, the Children's has only treated about a half-dozen airsoft injuries annually over the past few years. Thankfully, she added, those injuries have all involved welts to limbs and necks.

"Our greatest fear is that we're going to start getting kids in here with life-altering injuries to their eyes," she said. "It just takes a split second to happen."

And when it comes to playing with airsoft guns, pain and danger are the name of the game.

"Sure it hurts when you get shot," says my oldest son, William, 12, who owns three airsoft guns. "But trying not to get shot - and shooting other people - is what makes it so much fun."

Like the dozen or so 11- to 15-year olds who get together regularly after supper to wage simulated warfare around the Maison des jeunes in the centre of our village, he'd never even heard of an airsoft gun until a few weeks ago.

Neither had I, despite the fact that I'm a gun owner who grew up using compressed-air weapons like pellet and BB guns.

Then, like now, the golden rule of responsible gun handling was to never aim or fire a gun - any gun - at another person.

But the very nature of airsoft tag - and how the guns are marketed, particularly to kids - runs counter to that principle.

Originally produced as toys in Japan, where individual ownership of real guns is illegal, in the 1970s with a name - Air Soft - that differentiated their larger (and therefore slower) plastic ammunition from the smaller, faster copper and steel shot fired by standard BB guns, the clear plastic-barreled pistols and rifles are so real looking they are widely used as a non-lethal, live-fire training tool for police and military forces in the United States.

Still popular in Japan, where the number of "airsoft hobbyists" is believed to be in the hundreds of thousands, the guns are also becoming increasingly popular among many American sport shooting and close-combat enthusiasts. "The whole idea and beauty of airsoft," reads the website of one Kentucky-based weapons retailer who sells the guns, "is the fact that it is relatively safe and useable (indoors) where conventional BB guns or paintball guns cannot be used."

Unlike paintball, which has been popular across North America for two decades, airsoft guns started showing up in Canada just a few years ago, first in small sporting goods stores and, now, on the shelves of the country's biggest retailers, including Wal-Mart.

Because airsoft bullets fire at a velocity of less than 152 metres per second, they are not regulated by federal gun-control laws in Canada.

While some provinces and municipalities have laws regulating such non-powder firearms (Ontario, for example, requires a minimum age of 18 to buy the ammunition for air guns and BB guns, while Halifax forbids their firing within municipal limits), there are no restrictions on their sale or use in Quebec.

Airsoft manufacturers, however, most of them located in the U.S., caution retailers against selling the weapons to minors.

Most models also come with safety glasses - the only protective gear that the manufacturers "strongly recommended" users wear.

Steve DeschĂȘnes, owner of Passion Chasse & PĂȘche, a store in the Quebec City suburb of Beauport that caters to hunters and anglers - and the only one of the half-dozen hunting shops in the region to carry airsoft guns - says most of his airsoft sales have been to boys age 14 to 18, who come into the store with fathers who are there to look at firearms.

DeschĂȘnes said he and his staff try to adhere to a policy of refusing to sell the guns to kids under 16 who aren't accompanied by their parents, "but it's not always easy. It comes down to using your common sense."

He has enjoyed brisk sales of the weapons since he began stocking Crossman products for the first time in March. "I'm happy with how they're selling," he said, noting that sales of airsoft guns at his store now rival pellet gun sales. "It's really good when you consider that I've never even advertised that I carry them."

According to Roy Stefanko, U.S. national sales manager for Crossman, which controls as much as 80 per cent of the air-gun market in North America, the guns are intended for shooting targets, not other people. "I've heard anecdotally that (airsoft guns) are being used to play (war simulation games)," he said this week. "But that's not what they are intended for. They're intended for practising shooting in a safe way."

He said Crossman goes "over the top" when it comes to safety concerning airsoft guns in Canada, like adding the orange tips to the barrel ends of the guns for sale in Canada, where customs regulations require the replicate guns be made of clear plastic, so as not to cause confusion with real guns.

"Our goal with airsoft guns is to help families rediscover the fun of shooting," said Stefanko. "We don't condone their use for shooting other people at all. It ultimately comes down to the responsibility of parents and adults to make sure the guns are used properly."

Wal-Mart Canada did not return calls to discuss its airsoft sales, but an official with an Alberta company that sells the weapons via the Internet did.

"There has not been an organized push to bring airsoft into the country, it has mostly been private efforts through small stores," said the official with, who asked not to be identified.

The company, which was founded just two years ago, now sells a wide range of airsoft guns - replicas of everything from an Ultimate Bolt Action Sniper Rifle and M16 rifles to the Desert Eagle .44 Magnum - to people of all ages "from Salt Spring Island, B.C., to Stittsville, Newfoundland. Obviously we sell more guns to larger cities such as Montreal and Calgary. However, per capita, we probably sell the most to small towns."

She noted, too, that sales tend to follow a pattern - one that I witnessed here in this rural village, a half-hour's drive east of Quebec City.

"We find that when we start selling product to one small town for the first time, we have multiple orders from the same town over the next few weeks," she said. "Airsoft is addictive and very quick to be picked up once people have seen the product or a game being played."

That was evident watching my son and his friends in battle.

Divided in schoolyard fashion into two teams of about 10 players each - half with guns, half without; all wearing a variety of protective eyewear ranging from the safety glasses supplied by the gun-maker to ski goggles and sunglasses - they ran around on the grass inside the village's outdoor rink, shooting each other to screams of pain and laughter in an ad hoc game that resembled tag.

"This is the best game I've ever played," says Alexandre Couture, a tall and lanky 13-year-old who recently bought an airsoft pump shotgun - one of a half-dozen being used that night. "It's really good exercise and it's a blast shooting other people."

"It's awesome," adds Alexis Herrmann, a 12-year-old with an infectious smile who has also participated in airsoft battles with kids his age in other nearby villages - and who proudly shows off a half-dozen angry red welts on his back at the break. "It hurts to get shot but you have to to get close enough to shoot somebody."

All the kids said they recognized the danger of being shot in the eye. But they said those risks were diminished by the rules they set, like no shooting after a time out is called and no shooting of those who aren't wearing protective glasses.

Those crimes are supposedly punishable by the mass shooting of the perpetrator by all the participants. But in the half-hour I watched the kids wage simulated warfare, I saw numerous infractions that went unpunished - one of which resulted in a welt on the face of a non-combatant.

I also saw many cases of dangerous handling of firearms, like the pointing of a weapon - with finger on trigger - at unprotected faces. Loaded guns were passed around freely, their barrels waving in every direction, instead of pointing down to the ground and away from others.

According to the Montreal Children's Friedman, most injuries that occur in simulated battles happen when the participants think the game is over and remove their protective gear.

The use of weapons by unsupervised minors is also a recipe for disaster.

"These guns are not toys (and) things can get out of control very quickly," she said. "They have the potential to cause serious injury at any moment (so) kids should not be let loose with them."

She added that, like any activity in which risks are involved - everything from skiing and cycling to the use of airsoft guns and backyard trampolines - it's up to parents to assess those risks.

"A great day outdoors filled with laughter and fun should not end in a visit to hospital."

Much to William's chagrin, this dad has decided the shootouts at the outdoor rink are a little too far on the wild side. And I'm not alone, since the young adults in charge of the Maison des jeunes next to the rink have asked both their administrative council and the village to ban the guns from the municipally-owned facility, which is designed as a safe place for teens and pre-teens to hang out.

Not wanting to be a stick-in-the-mud, however, I have offered to supervise airsoft battles between my son and his friends in a nearby sandpit or another suitably isolated location. That way I can make sure the guns are being used safely, safety glasses are being worn properly, and fights are fair.


  1. Anonymous12:29 AM

    Just a couple of corrections to your blog. Most Airsoft manufacturers are not in the US. They are in Asia, primarily Japan and Hong Kong. There are less than a dozen US makers and the guns they make kids cannot afford. Crossman does not make airsoft. They began to import and sell airsoft when they saw how many more airsoft were being sold than the (very) dangerous crossman pump and CO2 pellet guns. Which are incidentally to be used only for small game hunting or target practice as they do break the skin. Like any toy or tool if used safely and for its intended purpose and not in anger then it can be safe and fun. It is up to adults to teach children this wisdom.

    Troy Luginbill

  2. Anonymous7:02 PM

    And another problem with your blog airsoft bbs are not was big as paint ball are you nuts! BBs are 6mm look at that on a ruler dumb retard

  3. Anonymous6:31 PM

    Hey weirdo...
    I play airsoft every week-end and when i get shot ya it hurts but not to the extent of going t the hospital... now your just exagerating so the government bans airsot guns. And also when i play were about 13 on one team and we all have guns and we all wear glasses, vests, neck guards and camo army helmets or caps. So the only real place to get hurt in is the ass, legs and arms so before you go arguing about airsoft, why dont you ask many different airsoft players from different places and provinces

  4. Anonymous10:44 AM

    Nicely said :P I play airsoft too and even if it hurts a bit, it's not dangerous. You should try it. you'll see how fun it is.

  5. Anonymous2:43 PM

    ya, i play airsoft to, i wear the basic stuff to, sumtimes bandanas around ur neck, safety glasses or paintball masks, thick caps for ur head, vests, sometimes even football cups if we have to. u are just trying to have the goverment bann airsoft. airsoft is perfectly fine, and to me, it doesnt even hurt that long, only about 3 seconds.