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Last Updated: Monday, 25 July, 2005, 11:20 GMT 12:20 UK
Gun sport group fights weapons ban
By Greig Watson
BBC News, Nottingham

Airsoft player ready for a game
Airsoft players say it is a more tactical and realistic game
Players of Airsoft - a sport similar to paintball but using battery-powered pellet guns - are mounting a vigorous campaign to protect their hobby.

The move has been prompted by the Violent Crime Reduction (VCR) Bill, which would ban the import and sale of most imitation firearms.

The bill is designed to tackle the sharp rise in the use of replica weapons in crimes.

But opponents of a ban say the new law would strangle a rapidly growing sport, which they claim has concrete benefits for children.

While other firearms offences have fallen, those using replica weapons rose by 66% in 2004 alone.

Derbyshire Police has launched an awareness campaign in schools, called Split Second, showing how difficult it is to distinguish between replica guns and the real thing.

At the same time, officers are trying to persuade retailers not to stock or sell such items.

Acting Insp Gary Rigby of Derbyshire Police's Firearms unit said: "A high percentage of our calls outs are for BB guns.

Airsoft players
This bill will strangle Airsoft. The game will be gone in five years
James Smith, Airsoft Dynamics
"Our officers have to deal with the situation they find at the time and if an individual is carrying what appears to be a real gun, they have to respond to that.

"The concern is this could lead to the injury of someone who was carrying a toy.

He added: "If these toys are being used by a company, there is scope for them to be stored centrally and therefore not get on to the street."

James Smith runs Airsoft Dynamics in Reading, Berkshire, and also helps run the Save Airsoft website, which claims 10,000 players nationally.

He said: "There is a big difference between BB guns and Airsoft weapons. The items often used in crimes, the ones used as fashion accessories, are cheap BB pistols bought from market stalls for 5.

"We would have no problem with banning these, which can cause trouble which far outweighs any other value they have.

"But Airsoft weapons typically cost between 200 and 300. What child or teenager is going to pay that for what is basically a toy?"

Airsoft players
I can see why some people would see this as politically incorrect
Tony Segalini, Close Action
Mr Smith insists this is no reason to ban them: "While these guns look realistic, there is no chance of them being converted to fire live rounds. Inside they have more in common with a remote controlled car.

"It would be easier to build your own gun than convert an Airsoft weapon."

He added: "If this bill becomes law as it stands, it will strangle Airsoft. The game will be gone in five years.

Tony Segalini co-owns Close Action, a company which organises Airsoft matches in Northamptonshire.

He said: "I can see why some people would see this as politically incorrect - a group of men in camouflage, dodging round a forest with imitation guns.

"But these aren't gun nuts or political extremists. We have people from all walks of life, teachers, office workers, solicitors, who want to take part in an exciting and challenging outdoor sport.

"We also regularity set up days for schoolchildren. This gets them out from behind the computer or television and teaches them teamwork, co-operation, self discipline and gives them a good run around.

Exemptions considered

"And rather than making them view guns as toys, it teaches them a bit of respect for them."

While insisting the provisions of the bill are important, the government does hold out some hope for the Airsoft community.

A Home Office spokesman said: "The violent crime bill seeks to ban realistic looking weapons which are used to threaten and intimidate people.

"But there will also be a power for the secretary of state to make regulations to provide for exemptions to the offence for different purposes.

"Things like kids' toys will only be caught by the ban if they're realistic.

"Paintballing is potentially caught by the ban but we would consider any case for exemption - the same goes for Airsoft guns and for battle re-enactments."

Sold at a toy shop near you...
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