Toy Soldiers

The men crouch behind a pine log bunker in the middle of a large wooded lot. Ready to roll. They're in camouflage fatigues, ammunition vests, and goggles. Some have Glock handguns strapped to their thighs. Battlefield helmets on their heads give them a menacing, robotic appearance.

They're carrying what looks like serious firepower — Russian AK-47 assault rifles, American M16s — loaded and ready to shoot.

It's a humid August Sunday in South Florida, and the men drip sweat. It's eerily quiet. And tense. At any moment, the enemy might come bursting through the trees. The group's task is to defend the bunker at any cost. Other members of their division are out there somewhere, hunting for a nuclear warhead.

The soldiers scan the woods.

"Keep an eye on the trails," their commander whispers.

Enough time has ticked by, though, for the young combatants to get overconfident.

"It looks like our strike force is holding them," a baby-faced soldier says.

Not exactly.

Zip-zeep-zing! The shots sound tinny, electronic even, like the irksome whine of a car's ignition when the vehicle's battery is dead. The men drop to the ground and crawl into position. It's about to get hot, real hot. A branch cracks. Dry leaves crumple underfoot. The enemy is approaching.

Mosquitoes buzz in the men's ears. Bugs fly into facemasks, bouncing across the soldiers' eyes like pinballs scoring bonus points inside an arcade machine. The men keep perfectly still. Real soldiers don't swat at bugs in the middle of a firefight.

But these aren't real soldiers. Nor are they guerrillas training to invade Cuba, militiamen preparing for an attack on a federal facility, drug smugglers taking aim at DEA agents, or street-corner thugs battling for turf. They are weekend warriors — kids and adults who, in dead-serious fashion, act out simulated battles with toy machine guns. The real-scale weapons shoot round, six-millimeter plastic pellets capable of taking out an eye, cracking a tooth, or breaking skin. When fired from a distance, though, the BBs typically leave just welts.

This is the sport of airsoft, which has inspired military buffs and patriots and, because of the hyperrealism of the game's weaponry, freaked out law enforcement authorities. On this Sunday in a remote patch of woods on the southwest fringe of Broward County, the players have a name for the scenario they're acting out. It's called "The Fight for Freedom." Sounds like a Tom Clancy novel.

Airsofters like to think of themselves as a secret society, a brotherhood of warriors. Their forays are clandestine. The "soldiers" have code names. Some even go through initiation rites. They play for the camaraderie, for the love of guns, to spice up lives dulled by long hours in office cubicles. A few young men consider the game to be hands-on training for eventual real-life combat, be it with the military or a SWAT team.

Airsoft aficionados realize that key aspects that attract them to the sport — weapons that look, feel, and even shoot like genuine combat arms and military role-play that peaceniks might say glorifies violence — frighten a big segment of the general population.

"There's always going to be people who won't understand it, and that's OK," says Ian Goodman, who calls himself Magsz when he's gaming, a 24-year-old who helped organize "The Fight for Freedom." "There's going to be some people that hate it, but that's just the way life is."

That's why they try to keep their covert operations on the down-low.

On this particular day, Goodman is wearing a bright orange safety vest over his high-tech camouflage fatigues. The vest signals to the combatants that he's unarmed, that he should not be shot. He's a game administrator, weaving about the trails with a walkie-talkie in hand. Right now, he's about to call in a fake assault, or, in his own words, "the mother of all aerial bombs."

It should be all fun and games. But as airsoft weapons gain popularity with the under-18 set, civilians around the country have mistaken the toys for authentic firearms. Sometimes, anxious citizens take matters into their own hands, threatening the toy toter with a spray of genuine steel ammo. Frantic phone calls have summoned SWAT teams.

Law enforcement officials can panic too. When a cop sees a teenager walking down the street with what looks like a German MP5 submachine gun over his shoulder, the officer is going to react. If the kid is uncooperative...well, the cop has seconds to decide whether to take him down. The North Miami Beach Police Department has had two such officer-involved shootings in recent years. One teenager survived; the other didn't.

Criminals are getting wise to the game too. Federal regulations state that fake guns must be sold with orange tips. But there's nothing in the books to prevent airsoft owners from painting those tips black or, for that matter, from painting orange tips onto real guns. When a robber holds up the corner liquor store with a toy gun and gets caught, Florida's mandatory ten-year jail sentence for armed robbery does not apply.

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Amy Guthrie
Contact: Amy Guthrie