An 18-year-old Mt. Spokane High School student was arrested Thursday, after realistic-looking guns that fire plastic balls were found in his car at school.
The guns didn’t make it inside the building, and officers characterized the incident as a good kid making a dumb mistake. But police say the arrest is only the latest in a string of incidents illustrating the disconnect between young people publicly toting realistic Airsoft guns and police who have to treat every weapons call as a potential life-or-death situation.
“This is absolutely what scares our guys on patrol to death,” said sheriff’s Sgt. Dave Reagan.
“None of us want to be responsible for shooting a 12-year-old,” he told reporters gathered around an air pistol confiscated from a different incident that, even up close, looks just like a real firearm.
At 8:45 a.m. Thursday someone at a convenience store at Newport Highway and Mount Spokane Drive called police after seeing what appeared to be an armed man, Reagan said. Based on a vehicle description, an officer found the suspect’s car at the high school. Two Airsoft pistols were visible inside the car, and police arrested Zachary N. Pittman on a charge of misdemeanor possession of a dangerous weapon on school property, Reagan said.
The guns are used in a sport that has been popular for years in many Asian countries where real guns are illegal. The guns fire small plastic balls, and players engage in military-simulation games similar to those played by paintball enthusiasts.
Part of its popularity, though, stems from the lifelike look of the equipment. Some gun manufacturers even sell the rights to their weapons to companies that make identical guns, except for gas or electricity-powered mechanisms that shoot plastic rounds.
“It’s actually pretty good training,” Reagan said. The department has used Airsoft weapons in exercises involving the potential for an officer to be shot during a traffic stop.
In the last couple years, though, police across the region have repeatedly encountered children treating the guns like toys, shooting them in parks, in neighborhoods and near schools. All of the guns come with an orange tip, but some users may cover it up to make the weapon look more real.
“It’s very confusing for our guys,” said Spokane Valley Police Chief Cal Walker. “They’ve got to make a split-second determination as to the risk and the validity of that.”
On Sept. 20, several officers wielding real shotguns and pistols confronted a group of 14- and 15-year-olds after workers at a day care saw the teenagers brandishing weapons on a nearby roof. Day care workers couldn’t tell the guns were fake, and neither could the cops.
At the time, one Spokane Valley officer on scene complained that similar false alarms caused by realistic-looking guns had been coming in once or twice a week.
On Sunday, a 16-year-old Millwood boy was arrested on suspicion of shooting two West Valley High School students in the leg with an Airsoft pistol while they were on the way to soccer practice. One shot pierced the skin and prompted a trip to the hospital, and the suspect faces third-degree assault charges for the shooting, Reagan said.
Last December in Spokane, police arrested a 13-year-old at the NorthTown Mall on suspicion of shooting Santa Claus with an Airsoft pistol.
In 2005, Liberty Lake police handled several incidents involving residents mistaking Airsoft guns for real weapons, and at one point parents angrily asked the City Council why officers had confronted their children with weapons drawn.
“We don’t make any assumptions about the type of firearm it might be,” said Police Chief Brian Asmus.
“Parents need to realize that the new, Airsoft guns in particular are made to look exactly like a real firearm,” he said.
They are perfectly OK on private property in a rural setting, said Asmus, but not anywhere passers-by could mistake them for the real thing.
Just a few miles away, a convenience-store clerk in Stateline, Idaho, fatally shot a man last December who attempted to rob him with an air pistol.
Criminals not only use fake guns in real crimes, some are rumored to paint the muzzles of real guns orange, making them appear fake and further confusing police or bystanders.
Parents whose children use airsoft guns should give them the same training that is routine for introducing kids to real firearms, said Kootenai County sheriff’s Lt. Kim Edmondson.
“It’s a fun way to get involved with your kids, too. Go target shooting,” she said.
Her department sees problems with airsoft guns and realistic BB guns mostly in the summer, she said.
In June of last year, a 12-year-old faced misdemeanor charges after bringing a BB gun to Hayden Meadows Elementary School in Hayden.
Like traditional marksmanship, Airsoft has a devoted following of people who use their guns for legitimate competitions and cringe when they hear about people using their guns in ways that could endanger them or others.
“I think it’s one of the best things to come along for a father and son and a father and daughter to do together,” said Douglas Stoebner, of Spokane, who runs Airsoftalley.net.
Stoebner, 45, picked up the sport a year ago.
“I was hooked. It’s like a second childhood,” he said.
The tactics, the realistic military situations, the team atmosphere and outdoor competitions drew him into the hobby, which now supplements his income as he sells high-quality airsoft guns that cost hundreds of dollars apiece.
“I think it’s been kind of an underground thing here for the past five years,” he said. The sport, popular with members of the military, has gained momentum in the last year, he said, and matches can be found online for most weekends.
The guns aren’t supposed to be sold to anyone under 18, he said. That means guns belonging to children probably came from an adult who, Stoebner said, has a responsibility to teach their kids about gun safety and that the only appropriate time to display an airsoft gun is at a competition.
“It comes down to education, and parents need to really pay attention to what their kids are doing if they buy them these things,” he said.