WASHINGTON – Urban legend has turned to reality in a suburban Georgia community where fun and games that led one child to lose an eye has forced local lawmakers to curb horseplay with BB guns.
A recent ordinance passed in Alpharetta, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, has outlawed the use of BB guns, pellet guns and paint guns for children under the age of 16 unless under adult supervision.
Supporters say kids have been roaming the neighborhoods, killing cats and maiming each other with the so-called toys. Detractors complain that this is just another step closer to a total "nanny state," where the government tells its citizens how best to run their lives.
Jim Matoney, an Alpharetta City Councilman who introduced the ordinance, said he has no problem with parents allowing children to play with BB guns in their own backyards or at licensed facilities. But outside that scope, in a community that has grown substantially in the last decade due to the influx of high-tech companies, the council is compelled to intervene.
"If the damage is only being done within their own household, that’s one thing. It’s another thing for parents to let their kids go out of the yard and shoot the guns in the neighborhood," he said. "We had one child who lost an eye in this neighborhood. That’s not something that can be compensated with money."
Opponents to such laws say the Alpharetta council has stepped beyond its purview in trying to legislate good parenting.
"It’s about the legislators insisting that they know how to be better parents than parents are," said Dave Kopel, a research director for the Independence Institute in Colorado.
"My response is, a BB gun is to a real firearm as a pencil is to a knife," said Colorado State Rep. Mark Hillman, who recently failed to get a bill passed easing the designation of BB guns as a "deadly weapon" after a boy caught with one had to serve several days in jail before pleading to a lesser charge.
In most states, BB guns, pellet guns and paint ball guns are not considered firearms because they employ CO2 cartridges, springs or pump action to shoot projectiles through compressed air, rather than explosives.
But regardless of their labeling as "toys", twelve states regulate their use in some way.
In October, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission filed a suit against the Daisy Manufacturing Co., which has produced the Model 856 and Model 880 BB guns since 1972. The agency says both models are defective and are responsible for at least 151 serious injuries and 15 deaths. The suit is still pending.
The commission also claimed that in 2000, 17,896 injuries related to the use of gas, air or spring-operated guns were reported.
Matoney said his ordinance has received national attention, but had barely been debated on the local level. The council held five hearings, but no one showed up. At the meeting in which the new law was passed, three residents spoke in favor of it, three against. Currently, 30,000 people live in the town, according to the latest census.
"A lot of people are saying they’re afraid to use their own property because these kids were shooting their guns," he said. "I went into the store myself and found that the packages on these guns (paint ball, pellet) said they are harmful, cause injury and should be used only with adult supervision."
Pat Bratton, a member of the Single Action Shooters Society and Libertarian Party of Georgia, agrees that these types of guns aren't taken seriously enough, and convey the message that "pointing weapons at each other is a game."
But he doesn't think more laws are the answer.
"I certainly don't think that either paint ball or BB guns should be an object of legislation, but a public awareness of proper safety when using these devices is justified."
The National Rifle Association has refused to take a public position on the issue, but Hillman says the debate is more than just the role of government in restricting Second Amendment gun rights.
"I think it’s the paranoia of the nanny state liberals who are concerned that anything that could conceivably look like a gun is dangerous. It’s the mindset that the state has to protect everyone from themselves," he said.