Friday, November 06, 2009

Cops to crack down on AirSoft guns

In a field outside Sebastopol, a small army of soldiers armed with high-powered weapons and wearing full camouflage uniforms sweeps across a hill toward a stand of trees, firing their weapons on full auto as they run.

Enemy troops hidden in the tree line fire back, the stutter of their weapons punctuating the air. Everything about this scene looks real, especially the weapons, which include sophisticated machine guns, sniper rifles, machine pistols and semi-automatic pistols. The only thing missing is real blood as "soldiers" occasionally fall to the ground.

The warfare is, of course, simulated, or "MilSim" in the jargon of AirSoft, the latest incarnation of weapon games since the invention of paint ball. And the popularity of the sport has become a growing concern for the Sonoma Police Department, which is moving to limit use of the guns in populated areas.

What sets AirSoft games apart from any previous version of what kids of generations past called cowboys and Indians, is the realism of the weapons.

Many, if not most, AirSoft guns are patterned after real weapons. You can buy an AK 47, an M16, an M9 Beretta, a Colt .45, a Sig Sauer 9 mm, a Luger PO8 or, if you want to spend some serious money, a six-barrel, Gatling-style "mini" machine gun that fires, according to the sales brochure, "several thousand rounds a minute."
Even up close, the only distinguishing difference between many AirSoft guns and the real thing, is the plastic pellets they shoot and the orange barrel tips required under California law.

Of course, many serious MilSim combatants immediately paint over the orange markings, making the guns look even more authentic and thereby giving police officers a continuing headache.

And in at least one incident, in Florida, a student was shot dead by police after brandishing an AirSoft gun with the orange barrel tip-painted over.

AirSoft guns can fire up to 550 feet-a-second, making them dangerous for careless use by people without eye and face protection. (By comparison, a popular .38 caliber pistol has a muzzle velocity of something over 700 feet-a-second.

The realism of AirSoft guns has made them popular with some police departments for training exercises because of the reduced risk and the cheaper ammunition.

AirSoft guns can be bought for as little as $10.99 for a spring-powered, replica Colt .45 automatic pistol, to $3,500 for that six-barrel Gatling gun, powered by a 12-volt motorcycle battery. Many popular guns are powered by either compressed gas or electric batteries.

Sonoma County has a well organized AirSoft community and a Web site - - through which games are organized in a variety of private fields throughout the county, including sites in Healdsburg, Windsor, Sebastopol and Petaluma. Participation is limited to people over the age of 13, and the games are popular with many adults. The Index-Tribune wasn't able to determine if there are AirSoft fields available in the Sonoma Valley, although impromptu games clearly occur here.

And that is one of the causes for concern to Sonoma Police, who recently announced that they will be strictly enforcing California law which prohibits the discharge of any firearm, including an AirSoft gun, around homes and occupied buildings.

Sonoma Police Sgt. Darin Dougherty said police have received some complaints from the community and will step enforcement of the law, which also prohibits pointing the guns at people, animals or motor vehicles. Possession of the guns is also limited to people over the age of 18 unless supervised by an adult or written permission is obtained.

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