By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine
They cost £20 at a High Street toy shop. So why are the police taking action against BB guns?
Jayendra Patel reached behind the counter and produced a Smith & Wesson M4505, a Desert Eagle and my eventual purchase, a Beretta 92FS.
"They start at twenty pounds and the most expensive is sixty," he says.
This isn't a seedy shop doing a line in lethal weapons, but a respectable toy shop in leafy north London.
BB guns look as real as the firearms they are modelled on but they fire brightly-coloured, plastic pellets which do not penetrate the skin. My new Beretta fires at 94 metres a second, so getting hit would still hurt, though, and there is an obvious danger if someone is hit in the eye.
"We insist on the parents being present, otherwise the children could go to friends to buy them for them," says Mr Patel. "There's been a decrease in their popularity in the last six months and we're phasing them out as soon as possible. We get a lot of kids asking for them but we only sell about one a week."
Named after the ball bearings the early versions fired, their intended use in the toy market is for youngsters to shoot at targets, which Mr Patel sells for £15. But for the last two years, police have become increasingly concerned about their contribution to crime.
This month Derbyshire Police launched a campaign for retailers to sign up to a code of practice which commits them not to sell them, after 80% of firearm incidents in June involved a BB gun or air weapon.
Young girls have been injured when shot and teenagers carrying them have sparked an armed response from police. The guns are also being used to commit robbery.
A recent survey by the Times suggests one in 10 boys aged under 16 have carried some kind of gun, with BB guns a popular choice.
Gun crime statistics for 2004 show a 66% rise in offences involving imitation firearms and there are fears that toy replicas whet the appetite of youngsters to handle the real thing.
They look less harmful in the box
"We seem to be coming across a lot of young men who are aged between 12 and 20 using it as credibility or just to show off," says Chief Inspector Jason Galvin of West Yorkshire Police.
"Quite clearly there is also a criminal use of these ball bearing guns to look like real guns to commit robberies, intimidate people or enforce their criminal practices."
Even experienced police officers find it hard to tell the difference, so the public should always assume the guns are real, he says.
And it is not just toy shops where BB guns can get into the wrong hands. Market stalls also sell them and there is a huge, unregulated internet market.
Until January 2004, there were no laws governing their use but the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 made it an arrestable offence to carry any imitation gun in public without "reasonable excuse", punishable by six months in prison.
It remains perfectly legal to sell them, but not for much longer. The Violent Crime Reduction Bill, which is going through Parliament, will ban the sale of any imitation gun that resembles a firearm. Sentences for possession of a replica will increase to 12 months.
It's a step in the right direction but the laws could yet be watered down, warns Michelle Forbes, who campaigns for Mothers Against Guns and has experienced first-hand the fear BB guns can cause.
"I've driven past someone pointing a toy gun at me and it frightened the life out of me. They're used in robberies and used to intimidate people. And it gives children the wrong message from a young age."
It's only a matter of time before a young person is shot by police for brandishing one, she adds.
Game of honour
But those who use BB guns legitimately think a blanket ban is not the answer.
Wolf Armouries in Camden, north London, claims to have the largest BB gun showroom in the UK and sells to players of airsoft, a game which originated in Japan 20 years ago. It is similar to paintballing but in the absence of the tell-tale splodges, depends on players - who wear eye protection - admitting when they are hit.
"It's a game of honour and hurts a lot less than paintballing because the velocity is lower," says Adil Malik, who works at Wolf.
Youngsters carry toy guns for credibility
"We're trying to distance ourselves from the toy guns you get on market stalls because they're selling them to irresponsible people."
He says the airsoft community is campaigning vigorously for exemption from the scope of the new laws.
And until the legislation takes effect, some shopkeepers are showing their own defiance against the criminals using BB guns.
Faced with what he thought was a replica pointing at him, one grocer in west London threw curry powder in the eyes of the robbers, who fled screaming in agony.
HOW A BB GUN WORKS
1: The magazine is removed to insert the pellets
2: Up to 15 pellets are stored in the magazine
3: The spring allows the top of the gun (7) to slide back and forth to load one pellet
4: A chamber holds the loaded pellet before the gun is fired
5: A safety catch can prevent the gun being fired
6: When the trigger is pulled, compressed air rushes into the chamber and pushes the pellet out with great force