Thursday, June 4, 2009

People, pellets and public health

Almost everyone is mixed up about air guns.

Let's briefly put aside the issue of taking an air gun to school and shooting a fellow student.

That obviously is wrong and requires disciplinary action. The 9-year-old Celentano School student who shot an airsoft gun at a another boy on a bus probably now appreciates that carrying a weapon of any sort, even something as innocuous as an airsoft gun, poses more risk than safety.

"Air gun" encompasses many different types of weapons, ranging from toys to rifles capable of killing small game.

Airsoft guns were introduced in Japan in the 1980s for teens fascinated with real guns, which are illegal and difficult to find there. Participants played a "combat" game like paintball with these plastic guns, which were considered toys.

Air soft guns employ bright orange barrels to indicate that they only fire plastic pellets, but it is a simple matter to paint the barrel or cut it off.

They were considered toys because they fire small (6 mm) plastic pellets at a slow velocity. Since kinetic energy equals the mass of the pellet times the velocity multiplied by itself, and all of that divided by two, it is clear that the only way to seriously injure someone with an airsoft gun is to use it like a club.

The one exception is that eyes are delicate and unprotected, so goggles had to be worn, along with plastic "armor."

Then there is the BB gun. BB guns were devised to fire BB-sized bird shot. Most BBs are made of steel or copper. The .177 caliber spheres can travel at 300 to 400 feet a second, and could conceivably cause serious injury. These are not toys.

The next step up the air gun line is air rifles. Some use a built-in pump to compress air. More powerful air guns compress air using a large, powerful spring. The highest quality air rifles are made in Germany and cost more than conventional firearms.

Spring loaded air rifles can fire a .177-cal. pellet at up to about 1,000 feet a second. The speed of sound is about 1,100 feet a second, and supersonic pellets make a loud "crack," which is self-defeating. Europeans (mostly) use these weapons to eliminate rats, and keep rabbits, starlings and other unwelcome small animals away from farm lands.

The most powerful air rifles propel .22-cal pellets at 800 to 900 feet per second.

Many of these rifles are used for target shooting in lieu of conventional rifles, because air rifles are the same size, but are relatively quiet, use inexpensive ammunition, and do not require a permit.

All air rifles should be treated as "real" guns, should be equipped with trigger locks, locked in a cabinet, and pellets should be locked in another container. As with firearms, you always act as if the rifle is cocked and loaded, never point it at anything you do not intend to shoot, and consider what is behind the target, because it is in the line of fire.

Hardly any robber uses an air rifle because the arms are large (45 inches long), heavy and unwieldy. Moreover, a conventional pistol has a higher muzzle velocity and much heavier projectiles, and can readily inflict lethal wounds.

Consequently, many criminals use use real-looking airsoft guns, or pellet-firing pistols to commit crimes. Perhaps they think that using an air weapon will aide their legal defense when caught, but it doesn't.

But air soft gunfs are cheap and easy to acquire and are sufficiently gun-like to scare potential victims. The least we can do is make realistic toy guns illegal.

If kids want to play games -- and they seem to be genetically programmed to fight mock battles -- they can use Nerf guns that are fancifully shaped and shoot light foam cylinders at low velocity. No one could confuse a Nerf gun with the real thing.

Ultimately, here's what needs to happen: toy manufacturers must stop producing realistic-looking weapons; air rifle ownership should be regulated, and only people with a demonstrable need should be allowed to own real firearms.

Unfortunately the Second Amendment is ambiguous and grammatically obscure, so gun fanciers and the firearms lobby will continue to ensure that gun ownership if widespread.

The question is, would the National Rifle Association consider a ban on air soft guns to be an assault on our Constitutional rights?

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