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Published in Print: September 22, 2004, as Imitation Firearms a Real Safety Issue

Imitation Firearms a Real Safety Issue

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Fake firearms are a growing problem that schools need to address, educators and safety experts say.

Those sophisticated look-alikes, they say, are more than just toys. A spate of recent incidents has involved students’ use or possession of such imitations on campus or at school-sponsored events.

Baseball players from Juan Diego High School in Draper, Utah, for instance, used imitation guns that fired plastic, air-propelled pellets to shoot at one another in the dugout during an away game last spring and on the bus ride home. The coach confiscated about a half-dozen of the guns.

After he returned them to the players back at their school, the students again began shooting, according to Chris Long, the assistant principal of the 720-student Roman Catholic school. One pellet hit a boy in the arm, then ricocheted and struck his face.

"But for the grace of God, he would have been blinded," Mr. Long said.

He said the coach was subsequently fired; seven students were suspended, and two others were expelled.

"The big problem that you run into is that parents are under this incredibly naive impression that these things are toys and they don’t present a danger," Mr. Long said.

Among the other incidents:

• A 17-year-old student at the 2,200-student Arsenal Technical High School in Indianapolis was suspended this month pending the outcome of a school investigation involving an imitation firearm.

According to district officials, the boy was standing outside the school on Sept. 3 holding a fake firearm. When school police approached him, he threw the gun away and led officers on a short chase before being caught.

Rebecca Bibbs, a spokeswoman for the 40,000-student Indianapolis district, said that in her six years there, she had never before heard of anyone bringing an imitation firearm to a school.

• Back in Utah last month, two students were suspended from the 1,140-student Uintah High School pending an investigation after they were caught with look-alike pistols at a school football game, according to A.J. Pease, Uintah’s principal.

He pointed out that carrying a weapon or a look-alike in public is against the law in Utah. Mr. Pease said the two students, ages 17 and 18, were being referred to court.

The growing popularity of imitation firearms comes as gun control is re-emerging as a topic of national debate. A federal law passed in 1994 that banned so- called "assault weapons" expired last week, prompting increased concern among gun-control advocates.

'Simply Indistinguishable'

Against that backdrop, school administrators and police officials emphasize the difficulty of distinguishing between such imitation firearms and assault-style semiautomatic weapons.

The Airsoft brand look-alike firearms that are becoming increasingly popular, especially among adolescent boys, include models such as the Micro Uzi, the L85 Assault Rifle, the Kalashnikov AK-47, the Hardball II Shotgun, and the Modular Sniper System. They fire plastic pellets at 190 to 350 feet per second, according to information on a Web site for Airsoft Pro Corp. of Towson, Md., one of many companies in the United States that sell the fake guns. Airsoft is the trademark name that several companies that manufacture the imitation firearms use.

The look-alikes typically are sold in sporting-goods stores and may cost from $15 to $200.

Among the law-enforcement officials expressing concern is Vincent J. Giampa, the interim police chief in Placentia, Calif., who said he brought the imitation-firearm issue to the attention of California Attorney General Bill Lockyer. When Mr. Giampa was the chief of police in LaPalma, Calif.—a position he retired from in July—one of his officers had to confront four teenagers armed with what the officer thought were assault-style rifles. They turned out to be Airsoft guns.

Although three of the teenagers dropped their weapons when instructed, one boy reached for his waistband. The officer did not shoot the boy, but he drew his weapon and nearly pulled the trigger, Mr. Giampa said.

As a follow-up to the August 2003 incident, Mr. Giampa prepared an instructional video that re-created the incident and addressed the real threats that imitation firearms cause. The video went out to colleagues across the state and got the attention of the state attorney general.

"The general public and police officers cannot easily distinguish the difference between a replica firearm and a real firearm," Mr. Giampa said. "They are simply indistinguishable."

Policies and Legislation

But there are approaches that school administrators and police can use to prevent problems, said Michael E. Fisher, a school police investigator for the 139,000-student Prince George’s County, Md., schools just outside Washington.

He said schools should have clear policies outlining the differences between an air-powered firearm, a toy such as a squirt gun, and a real firearm. He warned that people could be seriously injured if they are shot at close range, or in the face, by an air-powered imitation gun.

In the Prince George’s County schools, Mr. Fisher said, an imitation gun is considered a weapon but not a firearm. Students who bring weapons of any kind to school face suspension or expulsion. But a student who brings a real firearm receives an automatic one-year expulsion.

Punishments vary from district to district, but experts say most schools have policies that base disciplinary consequences on how a student uses an imitation firearm.

In the 53,000-student Portland, Ore., school district, for example, intent is critical, said Frank Klejmont, the district’s director of security. If a student is using a fake gun in a threatening manner, he said, that student is expelled. But if the imitation firearm is found in a student’s locker, car, or backpack, he or she is suspended.

Meanwhile, some state legislatures and city councils are confronting the issue of imitation firearms.

This month, for instance, the California state legislature passed a bill to expand the definition of imitation firearm to include "BB devices," such as Airsoft guns. The governor must decide by Sept. 30 whether to sign the bill into law.

The California measure would also require any imitation firearm sold after July 1 of next year to include a "conspicuous advisory" that warns the buyer that altering the appearance of the gun, or brandishing it in public, could be considered a crime. Most imitations come with orange tips on the barrels of the guns, which are supposed to differentiate fake guns from real ones. But police say young people who own the guns often cut the orange tips off, or paint over them.

In New York City, a resolution was proposed in June that would ask the U.S. Congress to amend the 1988 federal toy-gun law to allow municipalities to ban the sale of toy guns—including imitation firearms. The City Council has not yet voted on the resolution.

The imitation-firearm industry has kept fairly quiet on the issue of state legislation directed at fake guns.

Joe Murfin, the vice president of marketing for Daisy Outdoor Products in Rogers, Ark., which markets a line of Airsoft guns called Airstrike, said his company hears about legislation when it becomes law. But the company does not lobby, he said.

Still, Mr. Murfin said that while his company’s line of imitation firearms is "a good and growing category," the issue should not be a ban on such guns.

"The challenge," he said, "is the behavior of people, not the object itself."

The company’s line of fake guns is marked with a 16-years-old-and-up age recommendation, and it carries a warning that states: "Misuse or careless use may cause serious injury, particularly to the eye."

"The message is one of common sense," Mr. Murfin said.

Nathan Matos, 17, a student at 1,900-student Beaverton High School in Beaverton, Ore., echoed that message in an e-mail interview.

Mr. Matos said he owns three Airsoft guns, but uses them only in controlled games on private property. He also always wears protective glasses when playing with the fake guns.

"If a child has a replica firearm and is stupid enough to bring it to school, then he should be expelled," Mr. Matos said.

PHOTO: Portland, Ore., school police Capt. Dorothy Elmore displays fake firearms taken from students while they were on school grounds.
—Doug Beghtel/The Oregonian

Vol. 24, Issue 04, Pages 1,20

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