BENNETTSVILLE — Mike Smith loves his airsoft gun and the sport associated with it.
But he hates all the bad press the weapon has gotten lately.
For the uninitiated, airsoft guns are replicas that are made to look like real guns. And that is part of the problem, according to Smith, captain of the Bennettsville-based Black Spear Airsoft Team.
There are endless stories in the national media about incidents with the guns.
Police in Nashville killed a man they thought was armed with a real gun that turned out to be an airsoft weapon. A California teenager with an airsoft gun was shot and paralyzed by police. A New Mexico man was charged with a misdemeanor assault after he fired an airsoft gun at officers. A West Virginian woman used an air gun to rob a nightclub.
“Over the years, but particularly this year, there have been a lot of crimes being committed or misidentification of the airsoft gun,” said Smith. “It is really a sad situation to see an 11, 12 or 13-year-old gunned down by police because they had an airsoft gun.”
Smith would like to see a federal law put in place regulating how and where the guns can be used. He also wants parents to think twice about buying the guns for their children.
While an airsoft gun looks and feels real, the gun uses plastic pellets instead of bullets. The guns are also supposed to have an orange tip on the front, but many users take them off.
“My concern is that there are too many people running around with airsoft guns causing problems or getting shot by police,” said Smith. “Something needs to be done.”
In the United States, you must be 18 or older to purchase an airsoft gun. However, such guns are not classified as firearms and are legal for use by all ages under federal law.
In a number of cities and towns, airsoft guns cannot be used in a public park. Places like New York, Detroit and the District of Columbia ban them altogether. But there is no national oversight.
“I feel if parents weren’t buying the guns for kids … and most parents don’t really know what they are … there wouldn’t be as many of these accidents that we see in backyards with kids shooting each other,” Smith said.
The guns can be dangerous even for those trained in using them.
“There are people who play the sport, who ignorantly don’t use eye protection and they lose an eye,” Smith said. “They can also lose teeth. I’ve seen a BB embedded in a person’s finger next to the bone where they couldn’t surgically remove it.”
Smith said he and most of his fellow players wear goggles, helmets, face shields and chest protection when using the guns.
“I’m not going to lie, it hurts when you get shot,” he said. “It leaves a welt sometimes.”
The guns originated in Japan in the early 1980s as part of a training tool for law enforcement. Soon enthusiasts of the replica weapons began using them in military simulation games.
“It became a sport that was exported to Europe and then over here and it really took off,” said Smith, who has been playing for about a year.
Smith’s 12-member team practices in Bennettsville and near the Laurinburg-Maxton Airbase in North Carolina. The team competes at airsoft arenas in the region, including Fayetteville, North Carolina and Myrtle Beach.
“A lot of people who play are military or former military,” Smith said. “I do it because I love the sport and the camaraderie. It is not different than any other sport and it deserves the same attention as other sports … maybe more so because of the possibility of injury.”
Anyone who would like information about the sport or wants to join a team can contact Smith at 843-703-2118 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.