SEATTLE – When deputies arrived, Sgt. Duane Hendrix’s children were in the street outside the Seattle police officer’s Pierce County home.
Neighbors had spotted them running around, playing with what, to any casual observer, looked to be handguns. The deputies approached with their own weapons holstered, checked the children’s guns and found them to be airsoft pistols, an increasingly popular type of replica gun that fires oversize plastic BBs.
Hendrix says his children have a healthy respect for firearms. But the incident – his children treating toy guns like toys, not guns – didn’t sit well with him.
“After that, we sold them,” said Hendrix, one of the Seattle Police Department’s training sergeants. “That was enough.”
Until the trigger is pulled, the differences between an airsoft M-16 assault rifle or Glock pistol and the real deal are next to impossible to distinguish.
The guns are, by design, faithful copies of the firearms they’re intended to replicate. They’re sold with blaze orange tips, but most people who shell out for a replica gun are quick to remove it.
That realism is the appeal for a growing number of weekend warriors who use the fake firearms in elaborate battle simulations. Law enforcement agencies and the military also train with the weapons, working through bloodless shootouts in preparation for the line of duty.
But the guns have also proved doubly dangerous. For criminals bent on robbery or intimidation, they’re a readily accessible stand-in for bona fide firearms. For some youths, airsoft guns have drawn real fire from police officers or frightened bystanders.
“I’ve held my real guns up to the airsoft versions of them, and, if they didn’t have the orange tip on them, I couldn’t tell the difference,” said Jason Pfingsten, owner of Pacific Rim Airsoft, in south Seattle. “These guys need to treat it like a real firearm, not thinking they’re tough sticking it in their pants.”
Pfingsten and his wife got into the airsoft business two years ago. An advocate for the sport, he spends many of his Sundays tromping through the woods with 30 or 40 other enthusiasts during weekly battles held on private properties in eastern King and Snohomish counties.
Developed in Japan three decades ago, airsoft has a small but growing following in the United States. Pfingsten said he expects it eventually will eclipse paintball, in part because of the added realism the replica guns bring. The 6 mm plastic pellets are also cheaper than paintballs and deliver a little less sting.
Like firearms, Pfingsten said, the airsoft guns can and are being misused by some, particularly youths.
Pfingsten said he always checks customers’ identifications to make sure they’re at least 18, as the law requires. He said he’s also refused to sell guns to people he believes intend to use them unlawfully.
Others aren’t so scrupulous. Pfingsten said specialty stores such as his have a long-term interest in limiting the illegal use of airsoft; it’s an interest not shared by gas stations and corner-store owners that have taken to stocking replica pistols.
Seattle police are now regularly encountering the guns while on patrol. Officers sometimes discover a phony pistol while frisking a suspect, but the guns also have been used in robberies and muggings around the city, according to police reports.
More often, though, police come across the guns while responding to vandalism calls or reports of someone firing a gun in public.
In September, an officer on patrol in Seattle’s Broadview neighborhood ran across a young man pointing a pistol at passing cars while seated on a motor scooter, according to reports. The officer rushed from her car and was moving to confront the man when she heard seven or eight loud pops.
Hearing the gun, she recognized the weapon as an airsoft gun. Facing an armed police officer, the man quickly dropped the weapon and fled on the scooter.
But similar confrontations have ended in bloodshed elsewhere.
In 2006, a SWAT officer shot a 15-year-old Seminole County, Fla., boy who had drawn an airsoft gun resembling a 9 mm pistol. The same year, Chicago police shot and wounded a 14-year-old armed with a BB gun modeled on a Colt .45-caliber pistol, prompting protests from the city’s black community.
Even under the best circumstances, officers aren’t in a position to judge whether a gun is real, said officer James Kim, an instructor with the Seattle Police Department’s advance-training unit. By the time an officer gets a good look at the gun, it’s likely too late.
Airsoft guns play a crucial role in a training scenario aimed at preparing officers for one of the most dangerous circumstances they’re likely to encounter – responding when a suspect reaches into his pockets. The move creates uncertainty for an officer; a suspect could be reaching for a driver’s license or a pistol. Facing such a situation in October, a Seattle officer shot and wounded a cell-phone-wielding 13-year-old boy.
Demonstrating the training in a Seattle police gym, Kim played the perpetrator as Officer Robert Mahoney, another defensive tactics trainer and former college instructor, moved to arrest him. Kim’s hand darted into his baggy camouflage jacket; Mahoney drew an airsoft pistol modeled on a Glock service weapon and fired.
Before airsoft, officers trained with paint-filled rounds that were dangerous at close range and cost 50 cents each, Kim said. The airsoft weapons let them get closer and allow officers to run through the drills dozens of times to refine their responses.
“It’s the only method where you can drill decision-making skills,” Mahoney said.
Though he spends his days surrounded with airsoft guns, Pfingsten said he’s not convinced he’d be able to tell the difference if a robber drew one on him.
And, he said, he wouldn’t risk guessing wrong.
“If somebody came and pulled a gun on me – orange tip or not – I’m not going to take a chance,” Pfingsten said.
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