At a Virginia elementary school, a surveillance camera recorded five intruders in masks and hoods darting through hallways and corridors, their assault rifles pointed. In minutes, sheriff’s deputies arrived, their own guns loaded and drawn. Only after the gunmen were taken into custody, reports the Washington Post, did deputies discover that the assault rifles were replicas –so-called “airsoft” guns that shoot lightweight plastic BBs — and the intruders were 14-year-old boys. No one was hurt, but in recent years in Maryland, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Arkansas, young people with imitation guns have been killed by police who assumed they were armed with the real thing.
Last holiday season, airsoft guns ranked among the most-searched-for items online in the toys and hobbies category. Some parents say the guns are fairly harmless, especially with safety goggles and supervision, just a step beyond laser tag and Nerf guns. Critics say the guns create unnecessary risks — with both police and anyone else who has a real firearm — and can scare other people. “I think they are unreasonably dangerous,” said Stephen Teret of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. “I’m not talking about the question, ‘Should kids play with guns?’ The issue is why you would make the guns so realistic that even a trained policeman can mistake the gun for a real gun.” The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends that high-velocity BB and air guns (which fire projectiles at 350 feet per second or more) not be given to children under 16.