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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, July 21, 2003

Replica guns gaining popularity in Hawai'i

By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer

Howie Leong and his 15-year-old son, Jordan, figure they've spent $2,500 over the past three years to arm themselves with a realistic-looking arsenal of assault weapons that fire plastic, oversized BBs that sting but don't penetrate.

Grant Woo is a member of the country's oldest Airsoft club — Airsoft Hawai'i. The authentic-looking, pellet-shooting guns are a hot item for teens and young men.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

They use their M24 sniper rifle and MP5 and M4 assault weapons in so-called "Airsoft" combat games that are increasing in popularity and spurring sales around O'ahu.

Jordan already wants another $250 fully-automatic assault rifle and yet another $200 semi-automatic pistol. And Howie will probably indulge the expense — as long as Jordan keeps up his grades at Pearl City High School and uses the Airsoft guns safely, Howie said.

"He doesn't do naughty things," said Howie, a glass and screen installer from 'Ewa Beach. "Mostly everything he does, he does with me."

Honolulu is home to the oldest Airsoft club in the country — 16-year-old Airsoft Hawai'i, which organizes Airsoft combat games in Nanakuli, according to the publisher of the only English-language magazine devoted to the sport.

Sales of the guns have jumped in the past year or two among the handful of shops that specialize in them. And in the last few months, mainstream stores such as Sports Authority and Wal-Mart have begun carrying them.

The allure for a growing subculture dominated by teenage boys and young men comes from the realistic look of guns that at the same time cause far less damage than a traditional metal BB or pellet.

"Unlike paintball guns, Airsoft guns look real," said Pat Ohta, 33, a founding member of Airsoft Hawai'i. "Plus you can shoot them in your bedroom and not cause any problem to the walls or put paint everywhere."

Sports Authority began stocking half a dozen types of Airsoft guns in November to capitalize on the trend.

"It's a growing sport on the island," said Marcus Okamoto, hunting department manager of the Ward Avenue Sports Authority. "When we get them in, we can't keep them in stock."

Jordan Silva, a sales representative for I & I Sport Hawai'i in Kailua, sees a pattern to the sales.

"Some guy will come in and buy one," Silva said. "Then the next day, everyone in his group comes in to buy one, too."

Traditional nonlethal projectiles include, clockwise from left, the paintball, BB, pellet and plastic BB.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

There is no national organization tracking sales figures, according to Mike Pentrack, publisher of Pennsylvania-based FPS magazine (the initials stand for "feet per second," the measurement of an Airsoft gun's velocity).

Airsoft Hawai'i doesn't follow local sales, either. But Peter Du, the owner of Hawai'i's biggest Airsoft store, said business has clearly increased.

He started Power Edge in Kaimuki as a knife shop on Wai'alae Avenue in 1998 and was constantly asked if he carried Airsoft guns.

"I said, 'What's that?' " Du said. He brought in a few models the following year and sold one or two per day.

Now, with a wall full of Airsoft pistols and rifles in his store, Du sells up to 20 per day for an average of $30,000 to $40,000 in monthly sales.

The guns range from about $45 for a lower-quality, semi-automatic pistol, to $400 for a fully-automatic assault rifle, to $1,000 for a customized assault rifle that can include a sniper scope and grenade launcher.

The origin of Airsoft remains a mystery. Some say it began with BB gun manufacturer Daisy. Others believe the realistic but nonlethal guns originated in Japan because of the country's strict gun-control laws.

Whichever story's true, Airsoft's popularity in Japan quickly spread to Hawai'i and was the impetus for the founding of Airsoft Hawai'i 16 years ago.

Grant Woo, one of the club's members, said as many as 4,000 people may be shooting at each other with Airsoft guns on a regular basis. "It is definitely getting more popular," Woo said.

But as sales rise, Honolulu police are increasingly responding — with real weapons drawn — to sightings of teenagers and young men walking around city streets carrying lethal-looking guns.

On Sept. 28, officers ordered a 16-year-old boy on Brown Way in Manoa Valley to put down an AR-15 assault rifle that he had been loading with a magazine. The rifle turned out to be an Airsoft gun.

"If the male had not complied," said Honolulu Police Capt. Marie McCauley, "I'm sure there would have been a shooting."

The next day police received a report of two boys carrying guns on the Kaimuki Middle School campus but could not find them.

On Oct. 6, an officer spotted two Airsoft Glock semi-automatic pistols and two sniper rifles inside a car trunk and called for backup because he thought they were real.

The next day, officers confronted a 21-year-old man at the Market City Shopping Center who was trying to board a bus carrying an AR-15 Airsoft rifle.

Each of these incidents occurred in McCauley's District 7 area, from Punahou Street to Makapu'u. But officers from other districts are reporting the same kind of calls, McCauley said.

"We're alarmed," she said. "We put one of the guns up against some of our AR-15s and it was very difficult to tell the difference."

The department sponsored two City Council bills in response. One requires replica guns, such as Airsoft guns, to be carried in cases in public. The other makes it illegal to draw or brandish replica guns in front of a police officer.

Mayor Jeremy Harris signed the bills into law on Wednesday.

Honolulu police urged the council to pass the bills because they want to avoid a deadly shooting over a mistaken Airsoft gun, McCauley said. "They're definitely becoming more popular," she said. "That's why the urgency."

Reach Dan Nakaso at dnakaso@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8085.