Town's curb on BB guns becomes a clash of values

Once an icon of Rockwellian America, the lone boy toting a Daisy BB gun as he wanders the woods has a new reputation - that of an outlaw.

In the boldest of a growing ledger of laws across the country aimed at gradeschool "gunslingers," a new ordinance here makes it a crime to let children under 16 use a BB gun - or its modern cousin, the paintball gun - without parental supervision.

To many, it's common-sense legislation catering to suburbs under attack by roving gangs of "terrorist teens" who lob paintball grenades and frighten neighbors.

But here, in a state where rifles are as popular as bagels in New York, critics see a clash of a self-reliant gun culture with the more genteel behavior of wealthy modern suburbs. The issue is raising questions about how far a city can go in criminalizing what some consider a "rite of childhood." More broadly, it is spurring a debate over whether the town is acting too much as a "nanny," making decisions about a children's activity that should be left up to parents.

"This law puts everybody in an awkward position," says Rick Whalen Sr., a local parent who just bought his son a Daisy BB rifle. "In one sweep, the city council has deemed that my judgement as a parent is irrelevant, and that's distressing."

Alpharetta sits right on the faultline between the creep of gun-wary Atlantans and the kind of red-dirt hollows that Bo and Luke from "The Dukes of Hazard" could call home.

In just over a decade, this city has gone from a sleepy burg of cotton fields to a high-tech 'burb that's home to Nortel and E-Trade. Bond traders doing sushi lunches have largely replaced drawling farmers leaning on their John Deeres.

"You can't find a better example of a space station full of Northerners landing in the middle of the country and changing everything around them," says Walter Olson of the New York-based Manhattan Institute, who wrote about the issue on the website overlawyered.com.

"What you have, on one hand, are vegetarian parents who'd never let their child touch a BB gun. On the other hand are parents who say, 'One day, he'll have perfect aim,' " he says.

The law is part of a growing trend from New Jersey to California, where suburban "edge cities" seem ready to put certain controls on guns - even some that people consider to be toys rather than weapons - in the interest of safety. With 3.1 million BB guns in circulation, 14 states and scores of communities now have some type of restrictions on them, ranging from outright bans to mandatory gun-safety courses.

The BB guns can do serious damage. Alig Jahay's suburban cat is one victim of careless target practice. Last year, Mr. Jahay's pet came limping home with a BB gun wound that cost him $1,000 in vet's bills. Another suburban woman's cat was recently found shot dead by a BB, and a third person had $500 worth of damage done to her car.

Adding to the debate is the emergence of the paintball gun. Not only are the guns, which shoot pellets of paint, being used by teens to conduct mock warfare, but they are also becoming a weapon of choice for carrying out adolescent shenanigans.

A jogger here has been ambushed by paintball gun-wielding teens. In January, residents around Lake Windward complained when youths commandeered a pontoon boat and peppered lakeshore homes with paintballs.

The issue finally came to a head last year when 16 boys bore their paintball guns into suburban woods here. Some residents said they were terrorized by the racket, and wouldn't let their children wander outside. Complaints led City councillor Jim Matoney to propose the ordinance.

"Today, people are afraid to go out in their backyards and enjoy the quiet peaceful enjoyment of their own property because someone is shooting paintballs nearby," says Mr. Matoney. "Terrorism of this type has simply not been covered by many of our existing laws."

The difficulty in these cases has often been identifying the kids who are doing the destructive acts. Consequently the city council voted 4-3 to pass the law with a fine up to $1,000 for kids caught using the guns outside of the presence of adults.

But opponents say that the ordinance unnecessarily clamps down on a playful act of youth. For 14-year-old Rick Whalen, Jr., getting a Daisy Model 840 "Grizzly" BB rifle for Christmas was as exciting as a skateboard. Working his lips over his braces, the teen says he doesn't understand a law that equates cruel misbehavior to his innocent expeditions of plinking ginger-ale bottles.

Similarly, Doug Melton, one of the observers of the controversial incident that brought about the city-council decision, says he feels bemused by the measure. Mr. Melton says he didn't share his neighbor's fear during the fracas. Instead, it reminded him of his own raucous childhood growing up in rural West Virginia. The fact that his brother once shot him with a BB hasn't deterred him from valuing the accident-prone lessons of youth.

"If we're going to have the Second Amendment, then we've got to let children learn about safety, respect, and responsibility, even when they're away from their parents," says Mr. Melton.

By contrast, Councilman Douglas DeRito says he's loathe to let any of his three kids ever get close to a gun. But he says the new ordinance will put to the test his oath to uphold not just local laws but the US constitution. "By trying to legislate every parental right in this city, we are venturing down a very dangerous path," he says.

Still, even some gun-rights advocates say BB guns and paintball guns fall into a category of their own, a nebulous netherworld between toy and firearm.

"Frankly, I don't have a problem with" restricting BB guns, says James Moses, the president of the Alabama State Rifle and Pistol Association in Huntsville. "It's part of the expansion of suburban values as opposed to rural values, and that's an issue that we're going to contend with for the rest of our lives."

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