'Airsoft' guns can blur line between weapon, toy
The gun resembling an AK-47 assault rifle that 13-year-old Andy Lopez was carrying when he was fatally shot Tuesday by a sheriff's deputy is an increasingly common type of inexpensively produced yet realistic-looking BB gun that blurs the line between dangerous weapon and harmless toy.
Such "airsoft" guns are usually battery powered and shoot plastic BBs. They are popular mostly among young men who play simulated war games at indoor facilities as well as outdoors.
"It really is a toy gun," said Ryan Podesta, owner of Thirty First Outfitters in Cotati, which sells airsoft and paintball guns and gear. "It just looks real."
Podesta sells a variety of airsoft rifles and pistols, including an AK-47 style gun similar to the one Lopez apparently borrowed from a friend. The one in Podesta's store is made of metal and molded plastic and costs $169. All such guns can be sold only to people 18 years or older, he said.
Federal law requires toy guns sold by retailers to bear markings that distinguish them from real firearms. The most common method is by affixing a bright orange tip to the muzzle, though after sale they can easily removed or covered up, Podesta said.
Sports Authority on Santa Rosa Avenue had two different AK-47 style airsoft guns for sale, one for $139.99 and another less powerful version for $69.
The more expensive version, made by a company called AEG, has a magazine capacity of 600 BBs that exit the muzzle at speeds of up to 400 feet per second. It was advertised as a "nonreplica rifle," though the image on the box depicted a product designed for realism.
Podesta is familiar with the area where Lopez was killed because he tried to open an indoor paintball and airsoft center at Todd Road and Moorland Avenue, but he couldn't get the permits from the county.
He has since opened a smaller location in Cotati called Playland, which is in an industrial park next to a Pump It Up indoor bouncing arena for kids. Playland offers airsoft parties for kids, and its website shows children wearing goggles and firing military style airsoft guns.
Parents who know their kids spend lot of time playing violent video games tend to support them taking up recreational airsoft as a hobby because it gets them off the couch and exercising and teaches them responsibility, he said.
Unlike video games, which have no real life consequences, if they shoot themselves in the hand with an airsoft gun, they know they've made a mistake.
"It does hurt; it's no joke," Podesta said.
The airsoft rifles are popular specifically because they are so realistic, said Steven Cross, a 20-year-old waiter who runs an organization called Sonoma County Airsoft. The group hosts weekend war games on private properties around the county, some of which involve advanced military tactics, he said.
The popularity of the sport is "exploding," Cross said, in part because of the sharp increase in recent years of the number and variety of realistic-looking low-cost airsoft rifles and pistols.
That realism, however, makes many people uneasy, Cross said. "That's why there's some level of public distrust of the sport," he said.
Because the guns are very realistic looking and potentially dangerous if used improperly, Cross said his group employs safety precautions such as never loading the guns until the games are about to begin and measuring the muzzle velocity to ensure all guns are operating at a safe speed.
When it comes to taking the guns into public areas, Cross said he always advises members to use common sense.
"I always say 'Treat them like you would treat a real weapon,'" Cross said.
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @citybeater.