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Are Airsoft Guns Toys or Weapons?

An incident at Rye Neck Middle School a few weeks ago sheds light on this issue.

After Columbine and other school shootings, anything even remotely resembling a weapon on school grounds is usually cause for serious alarm. So some parents in the Rye Neck School District have asked if the administration downplayed an incident earlier this month in which a 6th grade student brought a plastic air gun to school, fired it and hit at least another student in the leg.

There were no injuries, and the school called the police. The alleged shooter was taken into custody and charged with unlawful possession of a weapon by a person under 16. The student, who is not being named because he's a juvenile, was suspended from school for the remainder of the year.

A number of parents complained that school officials tried to minimize the April 7 incident by sending a "backpack memo" to the parents of 6th graders two days later and by calling the plastic gun a "toy gun." The police report described the gun as "air-powered BB pistol."

A follow-up letter from the district superintendent, sent to parents on April 16, called it a "small plastic spring-loaded gun that fires plastic BBs." In that letter, district superintendent Dr. Peter Mustich wrote that the school's "communication on this matter could have been better" by notifying all middle school parents (not just parents of 6th graders) about the incident earlier.

For many parents and students, that was the end of the story. Mustich said in a phone interview that after sending the second email, he received four or five responses from parents and "haven't heard a word since."

Mustich also said the police report description of the gun as a "BB gun" was incorrect.

"It was a spring-loaded plastic air gun with an orange tip and soft pellets," he said.

There is a difference: A BB (which stands for ball bearing) gun shoots metal pellets.

Airsoft guns fire plastic projectiles, which are safer than the metal pellets in traditional BB guns. Air guns are popular for playing paintball-style combat games.

Both kinds of guns have been considered toys (remember 9-year-old Ralphie Parker's wish in "A Christmas Story"?), but experts say they can also be dangerous weapons.

Air guns are illegal to sell in the five boroughs of New York and Yonkers, but not in Westchester. The White Plains Sports Authority carries airsoft guns, which range in price from $12 to $180, but will not sell them to anyone under 18. Neither Miller's nor Toy Box carry them.

Experts warn there are real risks associated with "non-powder" guns, which include BB guns, pellet guns, air guns and paintball guns.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, there were approximately 16,490 BB/pellet gun-related injuries in 2008 (a national estimate, and the most current figures available). Between 1990 and 2000, the CPSC  reported 39 non-powder gun-related deaths, 32 of which were children 15 and under.

The greatest risk from airsoft guns, however, are eye injuries, according to several reports. No airsoft gun fatalities have been reported in the U.S., but there are cases where the police have shot and killed a person holding an airsoft gun because they thought it was a real gun.

A 2004 report by the American Academy of Pediatrics said "non-powder guns should never be characterized as toys."

Rye Neck parents Andrew and Andrea Sambrook are active in the gun-control group PAX and were particularly troubled by the school's response to the shooting.

"The school diminished the incident in my eyes," Andrew Sambrook said. "The message they sent to the student body at large was that this was no big deal."

Sambrook acknowledged that he is "hyper-sensitive" about gun control issues and probably does not represent the majority of parents, but said the shooting provides an opportunity to educate students about school violence.

At a recent Principal Advisory Committee meeting, he said he suggested the school give students information about PAX's Speak Up program, intended to prevent school violence by encouraging kids to report threats through an anonymous toll-free number. Sambrook said he offered to underwrite the cost of distributing Speak Up flyers and posters for the school.

Superintendent Mustich said that the district is working with the organization Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) to educate students about school violence.

In this particular case, Sambrook said public relations trumped student safety and hopes the incident can serve as a lesson for the future.

"People don't want to believe these things could happen at a nice school in Westchester County," he said. "I hope they do the right thing and at least put up some posters."

Editor's note: Tania McMenamin contributed reporting to this story.

Jake Durfee May 04, 2010 at 10:26 PM
airsoft guns should never be treated like toys. if you treat like a toy, then you won't respect it, and the second you don't respect it, it snatches your eyesight from you or worse, takes your friend's. airsoft is an incredible sport and is probably one of the most intense and complicated sports i have ever played. games can last up to 3 days and play just like and actual military exercise forcing you to work with your team to accomplish objectives. the amount of safety precautions are unbelievable. safety always comes first! its an awesome sport, but i fear it will become outlawed as kids do more and more stupid stuff with them. http://www.airsplat.com/airsoft-safety.htm
DizzleFaShizzle May 05, 2010 at 04:36 PM
I agree with Jake. I often buy Airsoft for sport and competition but when people start to abuse the sport much like drugs and alcohol, it becomes reckless and therefore, will provide more and more problems until finally they are no longer legal for recreation. It makes it difficult for people like me who just really want to enjoy life. I purchase from Airsplat.com and even though they distribute things like Airsoft and Paintball, they are also big supporters of Airsoft and gun Safety in general. Thank you Jake for providing that link and please, parents who are just wanting to stop their kids from bugging them, buy them an Airsoft gun from Airsplat.com but not before you go over the Airsoft safety tips provided by them: http://www.airsplat.com/airsoft-info.htm
Kevin Jones April 04, 2012 at 04:01 AM
Whether airsoft guns are toys or weapons solely depends on the person carrying it. Even a harmless looking object can be used as a weapon in aggressive confrontations, so banning airsoft guns doesn’t really solve the problem we are facing. Kevin - http://www.airsoftking.com
Kevin Jones May 02, 2012 at 08:24 AM
I believe airsoft guns can neither be considered as toys nor weapons, it should be considered as sport equipment. All children and youth alike should be informed of the possibility of eye and teeth injuries that can occur from the usage of airsoft guns, as well as the possibility of being shot at (with real guns) due to another person mistaking it as a real gun. Kevin - http://www.airsoftking.com
christina January 04, 2013 at 02:59 AM
Often confused misinterpreted as airsoft guns, BB guns are VERY different. BB guns, or air guns are air-powered guns that fire a metal projectile, usually in the form of a .177 caliber pellet, or BB. BBs are usally made of copper, or steel. Pellets are largely made of lead. For obvious reasons, these are NOT to be used against players in a competitive game. BB guns and airguns are meant as a sporting tool. They are used to hunt and kill small game or vermin. Their FPS ratings are usually over 700 FPS for projectiles much heavier than airsoft BBs. Air guns and BB guns are also not marked with an orange tip since they are NOT considered toys. Use of Airguns or BB guns in the same way as airsoft can result in serious injury, even death. Although they look very much like airsoft guns, and are even powered with similar propellents, they are very different in nature and use. i found this information at http://www.airsplat.com/toy-guns.htm but their regualr websit is just airsplat.com....and lemme tell ya, i love them! Not only do they have that educational page but they also have http://www.airsplat.com/airsoft-safety.htm which the youtube videos were so helpful! i would recommend them to anyone over 18 years old, go check em out!!! (:

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