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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Hawaii shooting renews spotlight on illegal uses of replica guns


By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Grant Woo, co-owner of Impact Games in Aiea holds up a flier he gives to customers. It explains existing laws and provides advice on the safe use of the guns.

RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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AIRSOFT LEGISLATION

A bill backed by Hawai'i police chiefs, the attorney general's office and Honolulu prosecutor's office would make the penalties identical for using real and airsoft weapons in robberies and terroristic threatening cases.

Present penalties call for a maximum prison term of 20 years for using a weapon in a robbery, versus 10 years for using an airsoft ó or replica ó gun.

A real gun used in a terroristic threatening case carries a maximum penalty of five years, versus only one year for using an airsoft gun.

Honolulu police Capt. Rich Robinson said the bill will be reintroduced next legislative session.

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

This is an airsoft replica of the U.S. military M249 machine gun. It comes equipped with a federally mandated orange colored tip.

RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

The real gun, a Glock 26 9mm, right, is displayed next to a Glock 18 airsoft replica at HPD headquarters. Police want to stiffen the penalty when replica guns are used to commit a crime.

ANDREW SHIMABUKU | The Honolulu Advertiser

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'AIEA The owners and sellers of realistic looking "airsoft" guns are re-emphasizing safety, common sense and Honolulu law after a man apparently bent on suicide was shot by an FBI agent while waving an airsoft pistol on Mother's Day.

Sunday's shooting left a 27-year-old Makiki man in critical condition and represents the most serious incident yet among several cases that led Honolulu police to draw their weapons on people carrying airsoft guns.

"This is really the first time that someone has acted so recklessly," said Grant Woo, the co-owner of Impact Games in 'Aiea, one of Hawai'i's biggest sellers of airsoft guns.

Since 2003, it's been illegal in Honolulu to carry airsoft or other so-called "replica" guns outside of a case, or to brandish one in front of a law enforcement officer.

A bill died this session in the Legislature that would have made the penalties for using airsoft guns in robberies and terroristic threatening cases identical to cases involving real guns.

In 2009, airsoft guns were recovered in eight robberies and seven terroristic threatening cases in Honolulu. There were likely many more instances in which airsoft guns were never found after a crime, said Honolulu police Capt. Rich Robinson.

Yesterday Robinson displayed two shotguns, two Glock semi-automatic pistols and an MP5 assault rifle and challenged reporters and cameramen to identify which guns were real and which were fakes.

No one guessed that the Glock 26 was real and the rest were replica airsoft weapons.

"You can't even tell the difference between the Glock 18 and the Glock 26 which one is real," Robinson said. "You get that gun pointed at you, you think you're about to be shot. You don't know it's a toy gun."

Airsoft guns fire nonlethal, plastic BBs and are required by federal law to be sold with orange tips on their barrels. But the tips are almost always immediately removed by buyers.

"I've never seen one with an orange tip," Robinson said, "and I've seen a lot of them."

Airsoft guns are most popularly used in shooting games, similar to paintball.

Like paintball players, airsoft players wear safety masks and helmets but fire BBs at one another in teams or as individuals in an infinite number of indoor and outdoor scenarios.

But unlike paintball, the allure of airsoft for a growing subculture dominated by teenage boys and young men comes from the realistic look of the guns.

"The realism, I would say, is 80 percent of the appeal," Woo said.

5,000 ON O'AHU

Today, an estimated 5,000 players on O'ahu participate in at least one airsoft game each month, Woo said.

Airsoft's beginnings remain a mystery. Some say it started with BB gun manufacturer Daisy. Others believe the guns originated in Japan because of strict Japanese gun-control laws.

Regardless, airsoft's popularity in Japan quickly spread to Hawai'i, where the country's oldest airsoft organization Air-Soft Hawai'i was formed by founders such as Pat Ohta 23 years ago.

"Most of us will never own a real gun," Ohta said yesterday. "And these just look cool. They're the same ones that are in movies and TV shows and video games. Everybody has their favorite."

Following the passage of Honolulu's 2003 ordinance, Air-Soft Hawai'i began distributing hundreds of bright yellow brochures outlining the new law to dealers, such as Woo, who also gives his customers another sheet on safety tips and responsible behavior.

"We decided to take the initiative and go out there first with an awareness campaign," Ohta said. "That's helped a lot."

But airsoft guns continue to get some people into trouble here and on the Mainland, where criminals have increasingly used airsoft guns in robberies.

POLICE ENCOUNTERS

Locally, before then-Mayor Jeremy Harris signed the 2003 bill into law, Honolulu police had increasingly been pulling their weapons on young men carrying airsoft assault rifles, including:

• Sept. 28, 2003, when officers ordered a 16-year-old boy on Brown Way in Mānoa Valley to put down an airsoft AR-15 assault rifle that he had been loading with a magazine.

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

• Oct. 7, 2003, when 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.

And on Sunday, law enforcement officials determined that Martin Boegel, 27, was carrying an airsoft pistol when he was shot and critically wounded by an off-duty FBI agent on Tantalus Drive.

Boegel's mother, Ute, believes he wanted to be killed by a law enforcement officer in what's commonly known as "suicide by cop."

Ute told The Advertiser that Martin had spoken several times about suicide since he stopped taking medicine for anxiety and depression in January but believed he wouldn't go to heaven if he killed himself.

Despite the passage of the 2003 Honolulu law, police continue to encounter people carrying airsoft guns.

As recently as May 1, a police officer was dispatched to a report of a man armed with a gun in 'Ewa Beach around 5 p.m.

As more officers arrived on the scene, one of them shot the suspect with a Taser gun.

The suspect's weapon turned out to be an airsoft gun.

SAFETY FIRST

That's why airsoft player Scott Naleimaile, 57, of 'Aiea, has always prohibited his son, Chris, from taking their airsoft guns outside, except to play in an organized game.

"Basic gun rules we stick to those," Naleimaile said yesterday. "I'm very adamant about that stuff. We follow all of the real firearm rules because they look so real, somebody can make a mistake."

When he saw his first airsoft gun eight years ago, Naleimaile was stunned by its resemblance to a real weapon.

"I was like, 'Wow,' " Naleimaile said. "I liked it."

Randall Omoto, 50, of Nu'uanu, also insists that his son treat their airsoft guns like the real ones they have at home.

"I also have two small children a 3-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter and all the guns are in a very secure part of the house and locked up," he said.

Omoto's also been impressed with the way that Honolulu's airsoft retailers emphasize gun safety.

"There's a pretty substantial briefing that they go through when it comes to safety," he said. "The safety part is paramount."

Peter Du, the owner of the Power Edge airsoft store in Kaimukī, has been emphasizing airsoft safety since he expanded his Wai'alae Avenue knife shop into a burgeoning airsoft business in 2001.

After the city ordinance went into effect in 2003, Du now refuses service to people who bring their guns in without a case.

"We don't want people carrying their guns while walking down the sidewalk," Du said. "That's a bad image for us. We tell them to treat them just like a real gun and use common sense."