There is no doubt that Americans have mixed feelings about its relationship with guns. While we seek to reduce the harm of firearms in our society, we also have to recognize that there is something about guns that Americans find fascinating and alluring. President Barack Obama is a strong advocate of gun control, but he says he likes to do some skeet shooting at Camp David. Regardless of how you feel about violence, guns continue to fascinate Americans.
People may say what they want about world peace, but when it comes time for celebrating American history, communities usually can rely on a core group of people called re-enactors to lend immediacy to the historic ceremonies. People who hate bombs do not have a problem with fireworks. You can be sure that psychologists, sociologists and historians will be studying the real and the symbolic importance of firearms in human populations, but you can be equally sure that people will continue to use firearms for recreational purposes well into the future.
The question is, how can we satisfy our itch to play with guns and still be a responsible citizen?
George Zervas, owner of Rhode Island Paint Ball and Airsoft on Post Road in Warwick, may have a way. He thinks people can enjoy the adrenaline rush of playing with guns without doing any real harm to themselves and others. As an advocate of a disciplined approach to playing with guns, he has built a thriving business on the make-believe warfare of organized airsoft gunplay.
“I’ve been in the airsoft business for about eight years, but it has really grown for the last five or six years,” said Zervas. “We have people as young as 12 or 13 and some people that are 50 or older. It’s a pretty wide spread of ages, but most people are between 23 to 47 years old.”
While most people are familiar with paintball guns and the special courses set up for that, airsoft is still relatively under the radar of popular culture, but that may soon change. Unlike paintball guns, that often have a pared down and functional look that is rarely mistaken for serious firearms, airsoft guns are typically prized for the look and feel of real weapons. Instead of paintballs, they use light plastic BBs that can certainly be felt when they hit you but rarely do any physical harm, especially if the proper protection is worn. The protection is also prized for its resemblance to “real” military equipment and sometimes made by the same manufacturers that supply the armed forces market.
“It is illegal to own body armor, but we have some of the same vests used by the military,” said Zervas. “The only thing different is that we don’t have the inserts.”
It is the inserts that make them military quality, but Zervas says the vests he sells are more than adequate for airsoft and they are an essential safety component for any competitive player’s gear. In fact, Zervas insists that players use safety gear for competition at the Warzone Paint Ball and Airsoft field in North Kingstown.
“One of the first things I tell people who are interested in the sport is that it is a serious game,” he said. “I don’t tell them, ‘You can lose an eye [without goggles],’ I tell them you will lose an eye.”
Nevertheless, Zervas asserts that people who play with the proper equipment are less likely to get hurt playing airsoft than they will in other sports.
“Actually, the injury rate is lower than bowling or certainly close to the same as other sports,” said Zervas. “Most of the injuries occur when someone falls or breaks an ankle. The only injuries I’ve seen have nothing to do with the game other than they were playing when they tripped or twisted their ankle.”
The light plastic ammo used in airsoft can be painful when they hit an exposed area of your skin but is not likely to be more than a sting. The velocity of the BBs is controlled by design and they rarely inflict damage other than at extremely close range.
Airsoft guns were first introduced in Japan in the 1970s and the Japanese still have the major share of the market. These guns often attain muzzle velocities from 150 to 650 feet per second and the energy is further reduced by the weight and composition of the balls. Most of the guns used are automatic electric guns (AEG). The motor inside drives a series of gears that compress a piston assembly against a spring. Once the piston is released, the spring drives it forward through the cylinder to push a BB into the chamber and through the barrel. Most companies produce replicas that look identical to their real counterparts. They are made of plastic or metal and are replicas of AR-15 Kalashnikov rifles.
The automatic rifles range in price from $200 to $400.
Zervas says that military men and police forces use airsoft for training.
“I have had a number of customers from police departments,” he said. “They like them for their resemblance to the real thing.”
They are also a safer and less expensive training tool than using real guns. The plastic ammo is an awful lot cheaper than real bullets.
“We bought three airsoft guns for our active SWAT team,” said one commander who wished to remain anonymous. “They are not very powerful but they do give the team the feel and action of the real thing.”
The veteran officer also said that concerns about airsoft guns being too realistic looking have been mostly unfounded. Some people feel that a policeman will mistake a replica for a real gun and shoot someone holding a replica, but it hasn’t happened in this particular officer’s 40-plus years in law enforcement.
“There is no doubt that they could be mistaken for the real thing, especially in low light, but I haven’t heard of any incidents of that.”
Police do acknowledge that replica guns have been used in robberies but they have been of the type made for display on mantles and walls.
“Some of those replicas look exactly like the real thing in every respect except being able to fire,” said the officer. “People who use them to intimidate or scare someone to rob them should realize that it is still a real and serious crime even if it isn’t a real gun.”
Still, certain authorities have been troubled by the resemblance to real guns. In Canada, for instance, all airsoft guns must be constructed of clear plastic. In America, federal law insists that airsoft guns be transported with orange barrel caps called “blaze tips” to indicate what they are. In Rhode Island, you must have the blaze tip on while transporting the guns. Blaze tips are supposed to be left on the toy until it's sold. The blaze tip on a pistol is a small band of orange plastic that goes around the tip of the barrel. Rifle tips vary in size but are usually an inch or more long.
Specially designed metallic BBs for airsoft guns can be found on the market. These metallic BBs should not be used for airsoft play because they can break airsoft player protections like goggles. According to the firearm rules and regulations in Rhode Island, airsoft guns are not legally considered to be firearms because of the plastic ammo, so anyone who does use metal ammo risks reclassifying the gun as a firearm and possible prosecution.
Since an airsoft gun is not an actual firearm, the usual firearm restrictions for purchase age don't apply. Normally, an individual would have to be 18 years old to buy a long gun like a rifle or shotgun and 21 to buy a handgun. However, airsoft makes both styles and they're considered to be toys. On the other hand, a store might have a policy that states people buying airsoft products have to be a certain age and that is perfectly within that store's rights, but Zervas says responsible dealers don’t sell the guns or ammo to kids.
“Because the business is so new, there really hasn’t been any formal standards established,” he said. “Right now, we are working on forming a manufacturers association to do that.”
As he said earlier, it is not necessarily a dangerous game but it is to be taken seriously and a system of best practices should be put in place. In the meantime, he encourages people to educate themselves about the sport and get involved in organized play.
“Parents who worry about their kids sitting in front of computer games all day should get them outside,” he said. “Airsoft is a good, safe way for everyone to get some exercise.”For more information about airsoft or for store hours, go to ripaintball.net.