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Developed in Japan to satisfy public demand for guns and sports shooting despite strict government control, airsoft guns look real but fire plastic pellets. Makers model them closely on real pistols, rifles and machine guns, using wood and metal on higher-priced items. Many are fully automatic. This makes them attractive to American shooters, who enjoy owning and shooting airsoft versions of submachine guns and assault rifles they can't easily purchase otherwise, in often elaborate combat-type games. It also makes them a concern for some Virginia and federal lawmakers, who worry they are too realistic.
U.S. regulations controlling importation and transportation of airsoft guns across state lines require permanently affixed blaze-orange tips, with an exception for theater and movie productions. No permit is required to buy or carry.
Virginia does not require a permit to buy or carry airsoft guns either. If they are misused, however, state law considers airsoft guns the same as firearms. Using an airsoft gun in a robbery or other crime is a Class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by a year in jail and a $2,500 fine--the same as with a real gun. Criminal use of a gun, including airsoft, on or within 1,000 feet of a school is a Class 6 felony; the penalty may range from one to five years in prison. State law also specifically absolves police officers of civil liability if they shoot in defense of self or others--even if the suspect's gun is airsoft. As of 2010, lawmakers are also considering additional regulations, such as adding airsoft guns to weapons prohibited for concealed carry and banning airsoft guns from all school property.
Virginia state law allows local towns, cities and counties to ban airsoft use in residential areas, require adult supervision and enact other safety regulations. Shooting ranges, galleries and private property are exempt. Alexandria, Fredericksburg and other populous communities ban airsoft shooting within city limits. Alexandria also bans sale of air guns to buyers under 18. Check local law for regulations of where to shoot and what ages may do so.
Airsoft use is allowed and unregulated on private property with permission, but organized groups offer more competition in well-equipped facilities and outdoor acreage. Shooters form teams for competition in woods and swamps as well as simulated city battlefields and "kill houses." However, each location has its own regulations. Blue Ridge Air Soft Specialists of Lynchburg requires safety glasses as well as face masks for close quarter combat matches. Blackstone Airsoft near Richmond also requires shooters to handle their airsoft guns as they would firearms, such as keeping them unloaded until ready to shoot and no shooting outside marked areas. Bethel Airsoft in Hampton limits shooting to semiautomatic only inside buildings.
Philip Custodio has been a community news writer since 1994, writing for daily and weekly newspapers in Flint, Mich. He has been editor of the "Clarkston News" weekly community newspaper since 2006, earning Michigan Press Association awards in photography and editorial writing. He has a B.A. in journalism from Ohio State University and master’s in education from the University of Michigan-Flint.