The Collegian

12/3/04 • Vol. 129, No. 41

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Not your father's BB gun

Not your father's BB gun

More powerful models used in shootings giving toy a bad name

By Don Oldenburg of The Washington Post

A Christmas Story

In the classic “A Christmas Story,” all young Ralphie Parker wants for Christmas is a Daisy “Red Ryder” BB gun. In the 40s, 50s, even 60s, BB guns were a rite of passage, held in the same esteem as a good pocketknife. But with the advent of more powerful, adult-grade air guns, BB guns aren’t what they used to be. Photo by Don Oldenburg, MGM-Zuma Press

When George W. Bush was 16 or so, the frogs in the pond outside his boyhood home in Midland, Texas, weren’t the only targets for his trusty BB gun.

“He said, ‘I’m going to count to 10, and you run all the way down the hall,’ ” the president’s little brother, Neil Bush, recalled at a Republican Party dinner in Provo, Utah, two years ago, according to the Deseret News.

Big brother drawing a bead on his backside must have left a mark, because Neil also told the story to second-graders in Richmond, Va. “I was running as fast as I can with my little lightweight summer pj’s on, and then ‘7, 8, 9, 10!’ Boom! I felt it on my right [butt] cheek,” the news reported his recounting.

But those were simpler times.

And BB guns aren’t what they used to be. As indicated by the recent spate of BB gun sniping in suburban Washington and this month’s report from the American Academy of Pediatrics attributing about 21,000 injuries annually to BB guns and other air guns, America’s nostalgia for the seemingly benign BB gun may be off target.

“What we think of as BB guns is a lot different than what we’re looking at today,” says Kraig Troxell, spokesman for the suburban Loudoun County (Va.) Sheriff’s Office. “Some of these firearms are sold at traditional toy stores, but they aren’t toys.”

Loudoun County last week charged four teen-age boys with malicious wounding after a BB gun was fired into a crowd of teen-agers on Halloween. Using a BB rifle equipped with a scope and powered by compressed carbon dioxide propulsion, they hit four teenagers, including a 14-year-old girl who was struck “less than an inch from her eye,” law enforcement officials say.

The attack came within weeks of other BB gun incidents in Northern Virginia: A 10-year-old boy was struck in the head while playing in his yard, a 27-year-old woman was fired on from a van, a man was shot in the eye, and more than a dozen car windshields and businesses’ windows were shot out.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize the harm that [BB guns] can cause,” Troxell says.

That may be because of public perception lingering from when BB guns were considered no more harmful than “frogging” a buddy with a knuckle punch to the biceps or throwing an elbow rebounding a basketball.

In the 40s, 50s, even 60s, they were a rite of passage, held in the same esteem as a good pocketknife.

Humorist Jean Shepherd’s “A Christmas Story,” a short story and movie classic about growing up in the 40s, is practically a boy’s paean to BB guns.

The only thing on 10-year-old Ralphie Parker’s Christmas list is a Daisy “Red Ryder”: the carbine-action, 200-shot lightning loader, range-model air rifle with a high-adventure combination trail compass and sundial built into the stock.

It is, Shepherd proclaimed, “the Holy Grail of Christmas gifts.”

Ralphie’s epic quest to convince his parents, teachers and Santa that he should get a BB gun runs up against the inevitable refrain: “You’ll shoot your eye out!” But back then it had the ring of motherly caution, like “Don’t put your mouth on the public water fountain.”

“You just weren’t a boy unless you had a BB gun,” says Robert Beeman of California, who has what’s considered the world’s largest air-gun collection: 3,000 pieces ranging from an Austrian smokeless .46-caliber repeating military air gun from the 1700s to today’s most powerful air guns. “Now you are much more likely to find a kid with a game console than with a real, functioning BB gun.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics’ report said that of the 21,000 air-gun-inflicted injuries annually, which include both penetrating and nonpenetrating injuries, 4 percent require hospitalization.

Between 1990 and 2000, air guns caused an average of four deaths annually, most to children younger than 15. The report came two weeks after a 13-year-old South Carolina boy accidentally killed an 8-year-old friend when the BB penetrated his chest and struck his heart.

“Many of us remember having had BB guns and didn’t associate them with serious injury and death,” says lead author Danielle Laraque, professor of pediatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. Today, “these nonpowder guns are not toys. It is important to say that because they are marketed at times as toys and carried in department stores and toy stores.”

The BB gun legacy changed with the advent of adult-grade air guns. “The industry didn’t sneak this over on everybody. Their sales pitch was that these guns are powerful,” says Beeman, who was at the forefront of that market expansion, turning a modest, mail-order air-gun company into the international business Beeman Precision Airguns.

In the early 70s, Beeman says, Daisy split the air-gun market with a new line of adult air guns that were considerably more powerful than its youth guns.

The Youth Line guns, which Daisy recommended for kids 12 and older with adult supervision, fire BBs or pellets at a velocity of less than 350 feet per second, he says.

Ralphie’s Red Ryder, Daisy’s second-best seller, was 280 to 350 fps. The “hardest hitting” of Daisy’s traditional BB guns, Beeman says, was the Model 25—25 million sold in 58 variations from 1914 to 1979—which fired in the 400 fps range.

“Around 350 feet per second is a figure you want to keep in mind,” said Beeman. “At 300 to 400 fps, that’s where penetration occurs in a human skin. Below 350 fps, it is generally considered capable of only limited harm. Above 350 is considered very harmful or lethal. You go into the skull probably at around 500.”

The Power Line guns, recommended for ages 16 and older with adult supervision, often more than doubled the Youth Line velocities.

“Those are the ones that are being pointed at by the consumer advocates who say there’s a risk,” says Beeman.

The Condor—which came out in March, is made by AirForce and sells for about $600—is promoted as faster than any other air rifle. It shoots a 14.3-grain lead pellet at 1,250 fps for the first five shots and 1,200 fps for the next 15.

Like most gun advocates, Beeman believes proper instruction is the most important step toward firearm safety.

He credits Daisy for spending millions of dollars to train millions of youngsters and says the NRA has also tried to improve BB gun safety.

And he argues that BB guns—the ones made for youngsters, that is—aren’t really any more dangerous than Ralphie’s Red Ryder.

He’s loaded with statistics to counter the pediatrics report and indicate that bicycles and skateboards, even coins that are shoved into ears and up noses, result in far more injuries than BB guns.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that in 2003, there were 550,000 to 600,000 injuries associated with bicycles and 97,640 injuries from skateboards that required emergency room treatment, compared with 19,504 for air guns, including the high-powered air guns.

Laraque, the professor, points out that more bikes and skateboards are in use, but “one doesn’t negate the other. This report is in line with reports on anything that causes injuries.”

Beeman persists: “When we talk about 21,000 kids were injured, we have to stand back and say, what did that injury mean? Was it a finger cut, or did it go into his brain?

“BB guns and air guns are probably among the safest recreational objects around,” Beeman says.

Tell that to Neil Bush. Although the White House did not respond to a request that the president recall his BB gun-brandishing days, the president’s brother did tell those Richmond schoolkids that shooting people with BBs is “a really stupid thing.”