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So-called soft air guns not so soft

CONSUMER ALERT
by: Merry McKinnon, These plastic guns may be packaged to appeal to children, but not all adults think they're toys.

Some boys playing with plastic guns, one day last month, now have one Woodstock mother worrying about the welfare of her children who might be outside when the gun battles occur.

'All the other boys were out playing in the street with these guns,' recalls Charlene Makley, a Woodstock mother of three, and Associate Professor of Anthropology at Reed College. 'The oldest boy had one that looked like a machine gun. And one of them shot at my son with an air gun.'

Plastic soft-air guns, which are sold locally, are guns that shoot small round six-millimeter plastic pellets. Packaged like toys, some models are advertised as having a velocity of 250 feet per second. That means, according to a local sporting goods salesperson familiar with such guns, that, if a pellet hits someone, it will not only leave a welt on the skin, but could, at close range, put out an eye.

Many stores don't allow children to purchase such guns; but clearly, some parents are buying the guns and letting their children play with them. Manufacturers, meanwhile, recommend that whoever wields one of these soft-air weapons wear protective eye gear. But, in Woodstock, goggles were nowhere in sight the day Makley's husband went out and told the boys not to shoot at his children.

'What about my kids?' asks Makley. 'Do we all have to arm our kids with goggles in order for them to be safe outside?'

Plastic soft-air guns are not only sold in some retail stores, but on the Internet as well. And it is on these websites that the full breadth of the plastic gun market is revealed.

'This is a tiered market,' explains Makley. The manufacturers create ever-more-realistic plastic guns, and some children become enticed into having the latest, most aggressive replica model, she says. 'These guns have cartridges like machine guns. It's 'commercialized violence', and the industry is tapping into the current culture of war.'

One online product description compares its plastic air gun model to U.S. Navy SEALs' weaponry.

As for parents living on other blocks in Woodstock and elsewhere in Inner Southeast Portland, Makley wonders if they know what the hazards are, and what the law is, concerning these devices. It's up to parents to be aware of the toys they put in the hands of their children, she asserts. 'It's illegal to be using any kind of spring or compressed air gun in or upon a public place, including streets and sidewalks.'

Although it's not illegal to own plastic air guns, they are illegal if used on the streets and sidewalks, agrees a Portland Police officer we consulted. In addition, one salesperson suggests that neighbors should forbid children from playing with such guns on their property, considering the potential for injury.

'If the kids are shooting at someone with them, call 911,' advise Portland Police Bureau representatives.

'There are a lot of arguments about how boys will be boys,' observes Makley. 'But my view is boys are created.'