Toy Soldiers

Be all that you can be — in war games with almost-real assault weapons

State Sen. Frederica Wilson of Miami Gardens has proposed banning toy guns altogether. Wilson was provoked into action by the 2003 death of 16-year-old Denzel Smith-Graham, who was shot in the chest by a police officer while carrying a toy gun. "There are some toy guns that look so real. They give children the wrong impression — even though they are playing, they might as well have a real gun in the eyes of the public and the police," Wilson says. Her efforts collapsed, she says, because of federal gun laws that protect toy guns as well as real ones.

"It is scary to think that a child, or anyone, is using a replica gun that could be mistaken for a real gun," says Amy Mercer, executive director of the Florida Police Chiefs Association.


Matt Farmer, a G.I. Joe doll come to life, prepares for battle at the Red Dawn reenactment.
Amy Guthrie
Matt Farmer, a G.I. Joe doll come to life, prepares for battle at the Red Dawn reenactment.

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The air-propelled BB gun has been a staple of American youth since the late-1800s. The oldest and perhaps most recognizable manufacturer of BB guns is a company called Daisy Outdoor Products, which has its headquarters in Rogers, Arkansas.

Daisy produced the Red Ryder BB gun that little Ralphie famously begged for in the 1983 movie A Christmas Story. One of the most memorable lines in this nostalgic tale about growing up in the 1940s is: "You'll shoot your eye out." Nine-year-old Ralphie hears the phrase repeatedly — in a taunting tone from kids at school, from a grumpy department-store Santa. Sure enough, when he pulls the trigger of his new Christmas toy for the first time, the gun kicks back, and he breaks his eyeglasses.

Daisy says it has sold more than 9 million Red Ryder BB guns since introducing the toy in 1939. The company proudly proclaims on its website that many hunters and professional marksmen have "fired their first shots with an air rifle" like the ones Daisy manufactures. These days, though, the company's product line of Winchester BB rifles, with their wood trim and long thin barrels, looks quaint compared with the automatic assault weapons popular among the airsoft set.

Airsoft aficionados say their modern, more sophisticated incarnation of "capture the flag" began in 1980s Japan, where ownership of real guns is restricted. Japanese toy manufacturer Western Arms has licensing deals to make airsoft versions of famous guns by Fabbrica d'Armi Pietro Beretta S.P.A., Colt, and Smith & Wesson; the replicas even bear the prestigious gun makers' logos.

Responsible airsoft players treat their faux weapons like the real thing. When traveling to and from a game, they seal them inside protective carrying cases to hide the firepower from public view. They handle every gun as if it were loaded and never point them at people outside of skirmish time. When the guns aren't in use, they empty the chambers and remove the ammunition magazines.

Parents who take an active interest in their kids' hobbies join them at the games, either sticking to the sidelines or entering combat themselves. Once home, parents might also confiscate the weapons and store them under lock and key.

Jorge Ubieta, a trim 48-year-old land surveyor from West Miami, hangs out in thick running shoes and jeans at a base camp while his 15-year-old son, Markos, does airsoft battle. When asked what he thinks of his son's new pastime, Ubieta tilts his head thoughtfully.

"It sure beats him staying inside and playing videogames," he says, flicking his thumbs rapidly as if tapping out moves on a videogame controller.

Ubieta says he might someday suit up and go shoulder-to-shoulder with his son in one of the airsoft games. Maybe when the temperature cools. "My son keeps trying to get me into it. He says, 'C'mon! There's old guys out there! You can do it!' "

During role-play, players usually wear protective gear to cushion the impact of the plastic projectiles. It's burdensome to lug all of those layers in the muggy Florida heat. But all it takes is one shot to the eye or mouth area to serve as a grim reminder of why it's important to cover up.

Most clubs have a ten-foot "bang-out" rule, which means that a player confronting another person at a short distance should shout bang instead of shooting his human target at close range. It's easier said than done. A player might get startled when he hears the word bang and squeeze the trigger anyway, spraying his opponent's face with hard plastic pellets.

Players trade tales of bad hits — say, to the groin or lips — like war stories. Some have the scars to prove it. They point to false teeth. Or the spot where a pellet, traveling about 350 feet per second, got lodged so deep that they had to squeeze the skin around it to pop out the little plastic bit.

There are plenty of uncomfortable toy gun moments off the field too. Like when a neighbor calls the cops on a kid brandishing an airsoft gun in his front yard.

"I've had many run-ins with the police," says Carlos Fonseca, a 15-year-old from West Miami who says that both of his toy guns have black tips. "When you're playing, the orange tip gives you away in the forest or whatever."

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