CHICAGO — Three days after Jaime Gonzalez Jr., a 15-year-old Brownsville, Texas, resident, was killed by police in his middle-school hallway after refusing to drop what looked like a Glock semi-automatic handgun, my son and his friend had a pistol leveled at them by a classmate, on a sidewalk near our neighborhood school.Imagine their relief when it turned out the gun was just an airsoft -- a cheap, extremely realistic replica BB gun -- whose bright orange tip had been painted to make the pistol look real.
Of course, I gasped when I heard the first part -- the scary part -- of their story, but the rest of it is old hat: I'm the mother of 10- and 13-year-old boys who own replica pellet guns.
On any given day I can find a Glock 17 on the couch or a Double Eagle Colt .45 on the kitchen counter. Long-barrel revolvers, semi-auto pistols, shotguns, AK-47s in various finishes and sizes -- you name it and I can tell you what part of the house it's strewn in. And don't get me started on how annoying it is to find the plastic multicolored BBs all over the place even though the kids aren't allowed to shoot these things in the house.
Thinking back on their toddler years when they were forbidden from watching anything on TV that featured gun violence while their father and I had an ironclad rule that they'd never own toy weapons, I laugh at our stunning naivete.
When did we relent? I can't remember. It might have been after the 30-millionth time one of them "shot" the other in the face with a pointed index finger and a mimicked gunshot sound. Maybe after the hundredth play date or family get-together where there were toy guns in abundance. Or on a birthday or holiday where it would have been the ultimate cruelty to refuse a well-meaning and absolutely adored present.
In their short lives they've cycled through cheap Wild West revolvers to expensive and way-way-over-the-top bright orange plastic Nerf assault rifles with tough-guy monikers such as The Raider, The Barricade and The Vulcan. By the way, if you've never been involved in a Nerf war, I can attest it is a terrific way to get your Bruce Willis on.
Then, about a year and a half ago, all my sons' peers graduated to airsoft guns, and just like that I was being dragged to the sporting goods sections of Wal-Mart and Kmart, and the hunting departments of sports equipment stores.
My sons' airsoft guns were purchased with long-saved allowances and in exchange for requiring protective eye gear, long safety lectures, calls to our local police department to understand what safety procedures our area requires, memorizing what to do if someone fears you have a real gun in your hand, and discussions of occasional horror stories like that of Jaime Gonzalez Jr.
His death was a tragedy that could have been prevented only if these "recreational or training" guns were nonexistent and police officers never had to risk a very convincing replica turning out to be an actual, loaded firearm.
Since that's not the world we live in, adults must shoulder the burden of safety with these non-toys.
Although children are not prohibited from using them, only people 18 and over are allowed to purchase replica guns, and each package contains multiple safety warnings in English, Spanish, French and in pictograms. Owners are directed to consult their local law enforcement agencies to learn the laws governing their ownership and use.
"Any alteration as to the coloration and/or marking of this product to make this product look more like a firearm is dangerous, may cause confusion, may be mistaken to be a real firearm by law enforcement officers or others and may be a crime," states one user manual. "It is dangerous and may be a crime to brandish or display this product in public. Parents must not allow minors to take this product to school. Having this product at any school or college or university may be a crime."
But how many parents -- or older siblings or friends who get their hands on these replica guns -- read, much less follow, these very real cautions or take full responsibility for their use? Far too few. All they have to fall back on are painfully sad reminders that although airsoft guns don't shoot genuine bullets, they really can get you killed.
Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.