Editor’s Note: The topic of kids and airsoft has been in the news because of the tragic death of Andy Lopez, a 13-year-old who was carrying an airsoft gun and shot by a police officer in California in late October. While the facts of that case are not yet known, the event gives all of us in the firearms community reason to pause and consider how we are educating the children in our lives about guns and what role airsoft games may play in the education of children in regard to firearms safety and operation. At Personal Defense Network, we generally stay very strictly within the bounds of information regarding self-defense and avoid discussion of politics or other shooting endeavors. We do, however, cover topics of firearms safety that relate to defensive firearms. The education of children in homes that have firearms staged for defense is a very important topic that we have not yet explored fully.
This article, from PDN Contributor Kelly Muir, is the first in a short series dealing with issues that families with defensive firearms and children under the same roof may face.
— Rob Pincus, Managing Editor, PDN
A short time ago, my teenage son and I had a disagreement over my unwillingness to allow him to join his buddies for a neighborhood game of airsoft. In our upper-middle-class Midwestern community, it has become commonplace to see kids ranging from seven to 17 years old having airsoft battles both in their yards and in the community parks. It is a primarily residential area where perfectly tree-lined streets, large yards, and 100-year-old homes fill nearly every inch of the six-square-mile area. Sometimes the kids participate in airsoft games that span two, three, or even four yards. We are fortunate that our community also boasts one of the lowest crime rates in the state of Ohio. Because of this, if a resident saw a youth marching down the sidewalk with anything that they thought resembled a gun, it is safe to assume they would probably default to the belief that it was a toy rather than a real gun.
Overall, this community would probably not be one many consider to be in touch with gun culture. Few folks here hunt and a few more may have their permit to carry a concealed weapon, but in general, most residents are not very aware of the safety rules and regulations of real firearms. As such, most don’t know much about airsoft either. Even those who don’t necessarily like kids playing airsoft in the streets tend to tolerate it in the same way they would tolerate a late-night pizza party, loud music, or teenagers screeching their tires as they pull out of a driveway. Most parents don’t worry much about the safety of the kids as they play airsoft any more than they worry about their kids getting shot if they’re trespassing in someone’s yard to douse their tree in toilet paper as a prank.
Neighborhood Airsoft Games
So when my son asked my permission to participate in one of these neighborhood games, I initially allowed it. That was my first mistake. Before I tell the rest of this story, it’s important to understand that I work in personal defense. I am very familiar with defensive firearms. I clearly understand the safety regulations of firearms. And yet, despite my experience, I allowed my son to borrow someone else’s airsoft replica gun and walk to his friend’s home to engage in the game. That was my second mistake. In hindsight, I find that disturbing. It is very simple to say I should have known better. The truth is that because I am ignorant of the airsoft movement itself, I mistakenly placed it in the category of some enormously evolved Nerf guns. The “Next Generation” Nerf game, if you will. That miscalculation and my failure to investigate it were mistake number three.
Two hours later, I pulled my truck up in front of the young man’s home to pick up my son. Almost immediately, three kids came barreling out of the backyard with these airsoft replica guns that looked incredibly similar to real guns. Airsoft pellets were flying through the air. When a young man ran near my vehicle, one of his buddies took a shot at him. He missed and the pellet came right through my open window, hitting me on the wrist. I was startled. In anger, I instantly got out of my truck and went to retrieve my son from his position in the backyard.
I was so bothered by the kids carrying the airsoft unsafely, pointing them in different directions without regard to backdrop, and shooting into the street with no regard for the safety of those passing by that I was literally shaking. When I found my son, he was more than happy to give me a big smile, gather his things, and head home. Though I wanted to reprimand him, it was painfully obvious that he had no idea how upset I was or how many things I’d just seen that frightened me. In short, he certainly didn’t think he or any of his friends had done anything wrong.
Driving home, my mind raced. How could a young man trained in aspects of real firearm safety allow himself to participate in something that so blatantly breached every rule he had ever been taught? How did I, as a mother who works with real firearms on a consistent basis, not realize what they were really doing? It was a double failure. I opted to stay quiet during the drive. As he rattled on about how much fun they’d had, it occurred to me that he didn’t make any connection between the two very different activities. In his mind, one was truly a game and the other was life-and-death. After seeing the “game” in action, it was clear to me that it would only take one mistake or misunderstanding to turn a fun game into a fatal tragedy.
That evening, I sat down and discussed my concerns with him. He seemed to understand. But just a few weeks later, he asked my permission to attend a late-night airsoft party in the neighborhood. When I realized that it didn’t occur to him how dangerous that might be, I decided he was simply not capable of applying common safety sense to the game at this point in his life. I felt uncomfortable with him playing airsoft in the neighborhood at all and chose that moment to let him know I would no longer allow him to participate in the neighborhood events in the future. In short, his neighborhood airsoft days were over. Considering it’s the pastime of many of his middle-school buddies, my new rule wasn’t well received. In his mind, I was the overprotective, non-negotiating parent. He was angry and I was frustrated. Even I questioned whether I had gone too far.
Four days later, there was a tragic incident in California and a young man named Andy Lopez was dead. He had been killed by a police officer while walking home after playing a game of neighborhood airsoft with his friends. The police officer had mistaken the airsoft replica firearm for a real one. Andy was 13, my son’s age. Though only those close to the situation know exactly what happened when Andy was shot, his death seemed to be the result of something I referenced earlier — a mistake or misunderstanding that ended in tragedy.
There was collective heartache when pictures of Andy flew across the national media. Parents like me identified with him and his family, because many of us could easily see our child in that situation. The finger pointing began almost instantly. Some blamed the officer, others blamed guns, still others blamed society, his parents, and even Andy himself. As I read all the different perspectives, I thought, is it really that simple? I don’t think so.
As a parent, I am perfectly clear that despite my personal defense background, my attention to parenting, and my experience with real firearms, I made three major mistakes on the day I allowed my son to participate with his friends. I was also complacent. Beyond those airsoft problems I already mentioned in this article, let’s not forget the fact that I allowed him to borrow someone else’s airsoft equipment, never checked to see if the orange safety tip was in place, and didn’t review the boundaries in which he needed to stay. I didn’t tell him not to walk down the street with the airsoft replica and we certainly didn’t discuss what to do if the police engaged them as he and his friends were participating in the game.
When people review the limited information they have access to, it will be easy to “armchair quarterback” the entire situation: who was at fault, who should be held accountable, and how the tragedy could have been avoided. While all that may spark some true changes, most will likely end up being fodder for a heated debate. Simply arguing about the different aspects of the situation won’t create change, nor is it a respectful way to honor Andy. To grow from this situation and ensure that something positive comes of it, we must ask ourselves what we all can learn.
Personally, I have learned some powerful lessons about airsoft problems:
• Airsoft does not belong in the street, the neighborhood, the yard, or a park. It belongs only in a private facility set up specifically for airsoft.
• Airsoft is a game using firearm replicas. As a game, there are rules and regulations and, in this case, laws associated with its use. Parents need to educate themselves and their children about those before they allow them to participate.
• While taking a firearm safety course is not necessary prior to participating with airsoft, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to have a child complete one. When someone understands both firearms and airsoft, that knowledge will help them to respect each.
• All equipment must adhere to state and federal codes and stay in their manufactured states.
• Participants must consider the proper response if law enforcement questions their activity, and educate their children about how to respond properly.
There is no silver lining in this situation. It was a horrifying event in which a promising young man was taken from his family. But if his death has sparked conversations between parents and their children about the responsibility of airsoft and the safety measures that need to be in place when playing, perhaps we can keep something so tragic from occurring again.