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Understanding the Fun and Appeal of Gunplay

If Parents Should Be Concerned About the Latest Gunplay Rage

It was just a normal night for three middle school friends hanging out together. They were going to walk from one house to another to get overnight stuff for an impromptu slumber party. It was a little late, but in this quiet suburban neighborhood, neither they nor their families ever thought about curfews.

That was about to change.

A policeman stopped them on the way and asked if they had any ID. They had more than ID. They were carrying enough air soft weapons to supply a small war. Several pistols, rifles and even a machine gun were tucked into their jeans and backpacks.

The boys quickly told the cop that they were carrying air soft weapons, and they were shocked when the cop unsnapped his holster and asked them all to stand with their hands against the car while he quickly disarmed them.

"Honestly? I was more afraid that I would get my air soft guns taken away than I was getting into trouble," says Tim Beckman, a 14-year-old air soft gun aficionado from Portland, Ore.

Beckman and his friends organize air soft wars in the woods near his house, and other than the time they were stopped by the police, they have never run into any trouble.

"My mom doesn't like them much, but my dad doesn't mind them," Beckman says. "He plays with them, too, sometimes."

If you don't know what air soft guns are, you don't have a young man in the house. These weapons have all the fun and versatility of a BB gun, only the pellets they shoot are made out of plastic, and the players can actually shoot one another. Air soft wars were born, with the 11- to 16-year-old set taking to the woods with gleeful joy. Many parents are afraid that air soft guns may make their son more aggressive, but experts don't necessarily agree.

The Aggression

Dr. Charles Sophy is the medical director for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. He believes that developing an increased level of aggression depends on the young man's personality and family situation.

"If they are aggressive by nature, this may intensify their behavior," Dr. Sophy says. "Otherwise, air soft guns alone shouldn't cause aggressiveness. It can be an outlet for healthy aggressiveness, as long as it is placed along the correct context. This should include structuring the activity, discussing it in age-appropriate terms with your child and possibly building an incentive program where the privilege to use it is earned, similar to an allowance."

The Attraction

Teen boys are often attracted to aggressive play, simply because of where they are in their development. It isn't unusual to see boys engaged in more physical play such as wrestling and mock fighting at this age, because they are trying to prove themselves among their peers.

Neil Talkoff is a psychoanalyst in private practice in San Francisco, Calif., and faculty at the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute and Society. He believes that hormones, environment and society all play a part in the tendency for teen boys to be attracted to more aggressive behavior. "Boys are dealing with the particulars of becoming men, and in our society manly stereotypes can still dictate behavior," he says. "Boys are more likely to engage in risky sports, drinking and driving, etc. Boys are often left to pop culture characterizations to define manliness – action heroes and rap stars, for example. The attraction to air soft guns is no doubt just a part of that pattern."

The Safety Issues

Greg Shellans is a police officer from Sherwood, Ore., and the father of two. His issues with air soft guns have nothing to do with whether or not they will make a child more aggressive – he doesn't believe they do – but rather with the safety issues and the lack of common sense he sees shown by both teens and their parents regarding their use.

"Kids shouldn't ever be in public with their guns in their jeans or in their hand," Shellans says. "As a police officer, if I see a kid walking down the street with an air soft gun, I have no way of knowing whether that gun is real or not. I have to assume that it is."

He scoffs at the manufacturer's assertions that the bright orange tip they put on the guns makes them safer. "If I make a traffic stop, and the kid in the back has a gun, I may not be able to see the orange tip," Shellans says. "At this point, if one of my kids came and told me they wanted to get into air soft guns, I would have to say no and steer them toward paintball guns or laser tag. Those things are both controlled, and it is less likely anyone will mistake a paintball gun for a real gun."

If your son (or daughter) loves playing with air soft, the following tips will help your teen play safely:

  • Never let your teen carry the air soft gun in public. They should always be in a backpack if they are being transported. If driving in a car, all air soft guns should be in a bag in the trunk of the car.
  • Always wear protective gear when playing, such as goggles, earmuffs and long sleeves. The pellets can, at close range, break skin.
  • Avoid playing in populated areas where someone may see your son sneaking around with a gun and call the police. Remember, they can be mistaken for real guns. It is best to take the games to a remote area, like they do for paintball. If possible, inform any neighbors of the air soft war.

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