Paint pellets are firing up safety debate

After a rise in injuries, towns question if paintball is appropriate for kids.

Chris Estes was just another innocent bystander in the middle of an American battlefield.

On a warm January day, three shots were fired from a red sedan, with the heads of several towheaded boys sticking out. As the laughter rang from the car, Chris, a middle-schooler who'd been on a bike ride with his two brothers and a cousin, pedaled back to his house to call 911: A gelatin-encased paintball had just hit his eye, permanently damaging his sight.

The teens sped away and hit a number of others throughout Garner - including a Hispanic man picking through a dumpster. They also popped a few rounds at a fast-food drive-through window, before police arrested them and charged them with assault with a deadly weapon - a crime that could carry serious jail time.

Now the town of Garner is joining a growing number of small towns and cities across the US considering a ban on paintball guns altogether, despite their popularity as a safe "extreme" sport with some 8.5 million recreational players, second only to in-line skating and snowboarding.

To be sure, boys who once would have thought nothing about pelting each other with BB guns are today picking up the kid version of a .50 caliber Howitzer: the 320-feet-per-second paintball gun, or "marker." But as injuries rise, a debate over the limits on the games boys play - and how badly they should be punished for capers gone awry - is also heating up.

"It raises this issue to a debate: When does juvenile behavior rise to the level of criminal action?" says Mayor Donald Rudney of Gurnee, Ill., who chose not to follow suit when neighboring towns began banning paintball guns last year.

"It's a question for our society," he says, "because we were all kids once, and we all did things that we look back on and say, thank God nobody got hurt."

When there's nothing better to do

The sport was invented in 1981 by bored forest rangers in Connecticut, carrying "marker" guns to identify trees. Now kids are turning abandoned mills, soggy woods, and crumbling state hospitals into faux-battle scenes . Many users are youth, but adults wage their own wars as well.

Paintball injuries have doubled in the past four years, but many courts, like one in New Jersey, have had little luck portraying the guns as firearms. Bans and restrictions have been in place in many cities across the country - but now the fight is coming to the suburbs, in places like Garner, Alpharetta, Ga., and Lake Forest, Ill., near Chicago.

For officials in Garner, the key is to discourage turning cul-de-sacs into OK Corrals.

"We don't want to infringe on people's rights to have paintball guns, but we also can't have people using them on the streets," says John Blum, an officer at the Garner Police Department.

Some observers believe an increase in injuries can be attributed to unsupervised use. Dr. David Listman, a pediatrician at St. Barnabas Hospital in New York, published a study in the journal Pediatrics last month calling for a ban on paintball use in unauthorized areas.

Parents are often oblivious to a gas-powered gun's potential. Indeed, paintball guns are often sold in discount stores without directions.

"I didn't know [paintball guns] could hurt somebody like this," says Diana Estes, Chris's mom. "Somebody squirting paint on somebody, that's what I thought it was all about."

For paintballers who play in professional tournaments with up to $50,000 purses, the spate of suburban violence and vandalism associated with their sport is vexing.

As a result, Dan Weldon, who runs Camp Splat in Henderson, N.C., is one of a growing number of field owners who say they'd accept a general ban on "outlaw ball" - or playing in non-sanctioned areas. Still, he says the main problem is unregulated sales of the guns at large discount chains.

In movies, on television

Its portrayal in the mass media - like in a recent Super Bowl ad showing a horde of paintballers without protective facemasks, popping a referee in a no-fire staging area - sends conflicting messages as well, some say. "The retailer should kind of lay it down, that Junior is not going to be able to take it out in the backyard and wing grandma when she comes by," says Mr. Weldon. "Right now, there's kids riding around seeing how fast they can shoot a construction worker."

But innocent war games - even with paintball markers that, when used with face-shields, sting less than a bee - raise questions about the very nature of play.

"We have an almost cartoonish model of masculinity, and it's a violent one," says Randy Blazak, a Portland State sociologist and coauthor of "Renegade Teens and Suburban Outlaws." "Our archetype of an ideal male runs from John Wayne to Vin Diesel, and they always have a gun in their hand."

But sociologists admit there's little research showing what the long-term effects of such games are on society. "Some theorize that violent video games are a symbol of an escalation of violence and perhaps a cause of real violence," says Mr. Blazak. "There's another theory that by playing pretend-war, children are dealing with a desire to be violent so they don't need to be violent in the real world."

For her part, Estes is willing to let the justice system take care of the boys who pegged Chris, though she hopes - and for now believes - that they weren't out to seriously injure him. Their preliminary court hearing was Tuesday.

"Chris is going to have to pay for the rest of his life for their mistake, so I hope they learn from this," says Estes. "Hopefully it will put them on the right path if they were not on the right path."

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