A rash of vandalism in Spokane has involved people wielding BB and pellet guns, and police say they’re taking the problem seriously.
From about Aug. 18 through the end of the month, the Spokane Police Department saw a surge in cases of malicious mischief – property damage in which the vandal does not enter a home or business. During an average week, police see 40 to 50 incidents of malicious mischief; in the last couple of weeks in August, there were more than 100 incidents per week, and 70 percent or more were caused by BB or pellet guns, said Tom Michaud, a crime analyst for the police department.
“These guns are recognized throughout law enforcement as a problem,” he said. “Some people think of it as a lower crime, but BB and pellet guns cause a lot more problems than people realize. We take it seriously.”
Vandals have shot out windows from cars and homes, fired on a Spokane Transit Authority bus carrying passengers, and pulled the trigger on animals, police said.
So far officers have arrested four shooting suspects and are searching for two others. They believe two groups of vandals with no connection to each other caused most of the damage.
Shooting someone with a BB gun is third-degree assault, a felony, Michaud said. But it’s difficult to prosecute unless the shooter is caught in the act, he said.
By the end of August, malicious mischief incidents, including BB and pellet damage, dropped back down after police increased patrols in areas where most damage happened, including the East Central neighborhood. Part of the spike in gun use may have been seasonal, with kids getting restless before returning to school, Michaud said.
But it’s not just mischief police are worried about.
“BB guns are consistently a problem because now they are made to look like real guns, and it’s an officer safety issue,” Michaud said. “That’s what an officer sees. They don’t see anything but that gun.”
Such a misinterpretation played a role in a fatal encounter Aug. 24 in a Spokane alley. George B. Al Hayek, 26, a private security guard who had a BB gun, was shot and killed by a man who said he thought Al Hayek was carrying a semi-automatic handgun, according to police.
BB gun buyers recognize how these mock-ups look and feel like real guns.
The packaging of the CP 99 Compact Recon air gun warns, “Do not brandish or display this air gun in public – it may confuse people and may be a crime. Police and others may think it is a firearm. Do not change the coloration and markings to make it look more like a firearm.”
Some manufacturers put colored tips on airsoft, BB and paintball guns to distinguish them from real firearms.
Retailers say those types of guns serve a purpose – for practice and education. Most stores require that a buyer be at least 18 years old or have a parent with them to purchase one.
“BB guns are good for target practice and learning safety. Usually we see parents buying them to teach their children,” said an employee of The White Elephant sporting goods store on North Division Street. He added that the sale of the guns is steady business for the store.
At the General Store, employees said they’ve seen a spike in the guns’ popularity. “We can’t keep the BB or airsoft guns in stock,” said Dan Ayers. He estimates in the past three months they’ve sold nearly 200 of them.
“These are not fake guns. They’re just a low caliber that isn’t likely to penetrate skin,” said Peter Roundy, another General Store employee.
Ayers said kids like to use the guns to simulate battles. This is true for 11-year-old Jason Kanorr, a visitor from Canada at Cabela’s sporting goods in Post Falls last week.
“I just use them to have pretend war with my brother and friends, and for target practice,” Kanorr said as he stood in front of an airsoft gun selection.
“With safety glasses and safety equipment,” added his mother, Karen. “We let them use biodegradable pellets on five acres at our house.”
They said Canada requires the guns be clear plastic to distinguish them from other firearms.
Jason Kanorr looked over the more realistic guns at Cabela’s. “These ones are more fun.”