Toy guns can do a lot more than put out an eye, break the window of a home, ding up a car and freak out the neighbor's cats.
If your kid was gifted an airsoft gun over the holidays, beware before letting them head out the door to shoot at targets in suburbia.
"If it looks like a real weapon, don't use it out in public," Sgt. Pete Smith of the Stockton Police Department said of BB, airsoft, paint guns or other toy weapons that appear authentic. "Do not wield it as a hoax or a ruse. Don't flash it around like it's a real gun because if law enforcement comes on scene, we don't know right off the bat if it is a threat, and we would hate to see a tragedy occur."
Airsoft guns are growing in popularity.
Many models are clear plastic, camouflage or even pink. But a growing number of teens prefer the fiercer black airsoft guns that are replicates of actual firearms. Found at sporting goods outlets such as Bass Pro Shops, other big box stores and online, the toys are legal and propel little plastic neon-colored BBs. But when these airsoft guns eerily resemble weapons, it can lead to a 911 call.
A group of north Stockton teenage boys found this out on Veterans Day when they met up to go out to a deserted open space in the Delta and shoot their airsoft guns.
"One of the boys was spotted walking by a middle school dressed in a black trench coat with what looked like a real gun on his shoulder," said Russ Rieber, a dad whose son and friends learned a lesson that day after concerned passersby called 911. "The police came to our house where the boys were (meeting up) and it was quite a scare. One of the friends walked out the door with his airsoft gun in hand as the police were surrounding the house."
Local law enforcement officials say that in such situations they have no choice but to assume they are dealing with a real threat.
Rieber said police thought the toy gun was real and handcuffed the teen. The kids still inside the home were unaware that they had created a scare. They heard some noise and thought their friends were playing a trick on them. One of the boys walked out the front door with two toy pistols that resembled real handguns and yelled "freeze," according to Rieber. Quickly realizing what was going on, he complied with police demands to get on the ground.
"If it weren't for the professionalism of the Stockton PD, this story could have had a very tragic ending," Rieber said, adding that the group of teens ending up being handcuffed while police determined whether they were dealing with a legitimate threat. "After being lectured by the police, (they) learned that they can't walk around the neighborhood with toy guns that look real. They shouldn't even walk out the door with one in their hand."
The Riebers thought long and hard about banning the toys but decided to let their son continue to use his airsoft gun if he followed the advice police issued that day.
For Christmas, the Riebers gave the airsoft gun fans in their family duffel bags so the toy guns can be transported without drawing attention.
"When we get on the scene we will treat it like it's a real threat until we determine otherwise," Smith said of 911 calls police respond to that turn out to be kids playing with toy weapons. "There's a level of responsibility that comes with having a toy gun that looks real."
Smith advises that if the toy guns are realistic, play with them inside, in a private area or in an airsoft gun arena.
"Even driving, don't have it out on the seat of your car," he said. "If you are involved in a traffic stop, the officer could mistake your toy for a threat. Transport that in your trunk."
After learning their lesson, Reiber said the teenagers found out about an indoor airsoft gun arena on Eight Mile Road in Stockton where kids - and adults, too - have 60,000 square feet of space to team up and play search-and-rescue scenarios or even capture the flag. Now, they take the airsoft game inside.
The owner of CBQ City said he originally opened the arena several years ago to give law enforcement officers a place to train. In the past year, it has become popular with kids.
"Police would tell me that I should open it up to let kids and teens have a place to play," Joey Rubio of CBQ City said on a recent Sunday as the rat-tat-tat sounds of airsoft gun fire rattled around him. "They tell me that these guns get mistaken for actual weapons. They look so real that police can't tell right away that they are toys. Plus, you never know, bad guys could paint a real gun to look like a toy version."
Although most airsoft guns have neon-orange tips to differentiate them from the real thing, but some kids paint the tips black to make the guns look more authentic.
On this particular day, scores of camo-clad men, teenagers and even some young boys were shooting their airsoft guns in the warehouse, where there are barriers, wooden buildings, vehicles and other scene-staging structures to resemble an urban area.
"They are playing a scenario where they compete to find a downed pilot," Rubio said. "This is a safe environment. We check out everyone's gun. They have to be wearing the proper safety equipment. And we have referees to make sure no one gets hurt."
Andrew Rodriguez of Stockton watched his 11-year-old son Adrian take part in the action. As the referee signaled a lunch break, a beaming Adrian told his dad thanks.
"This is so fun," he said.
Rodriguez said there were a lot of kids Adrian's age participating that day.
"My son got his airsoft gun for Christmas. We didn't even realize this place was close to our home," Rodriguez said. "We went and watched one day just to check it out. Then we went and he took part. He said it was one of the most fun things he had ever done."
Rodriguez said his son's gun looks like the real thing.
"It might be OK to play with in your backyard, but it's just really unsafe to be out in the street with something like that," he said of the toy. "Even if it doesn't look real, it's just not smart. It's unsafe."
Rodriguez said his son will only be using his airsoft gun at an indoor airsoft arena such as CBQ City.
"It's a really cool place. It's safe and it's supervised," Rodriguez said, adding there is an extra bonus. "Plus, the kids are only shooting at people that are OK with getting hit by a plastic BB."
For parents who allow their kids to play with toy guns outside, Lodi Police Det. Eric Bradley has some advice.
"The first advice is to not have a realistic paint ball gun, BB gun or airsoft gun outside, period. But the second advice is that if you are living in a neighborhood and you are going to play with an airsoft gun, let the neighbors know what you are doing and let them know it's not a real gun," he said, adding that if there are other kids outside - even bystanders - everyone should be wearing protective eye gear. "It's a good idea to have some adult supervision so passersby know that it's kids out having fun with parents watching. And don't be playing with a real-looking toy gun at or near a school, ever."
Police said it's important to think about the consequences of playing with a realistic gun out in public.
"Obviously for our safety and the public safety, we have to treat it like a real dangerous weapon until we prove otherwise," Bradley said. "And that will always be our response."