Dubuque officials: airsoft gun dangerous in real gun resemblance - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Dubuque officials: airsoft guns most dangerous in resemblance to real guns

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DUBUQUE (KWWL) -

The Dubuque Community School District and Dubuque Police Department are sending a message all eastern Iowa parents and students can hear about the dangers of airsoft guns.

This comes after two incidents in the past week within the district, in which students brought airsoft pistols to school.

An airsoft gun is considered a non-lethal and recreational weapon that launches plastic or rubber projectiles using a spring or compressed air.

"Depending on where the person's hit, obviously in the eye or other sensitive areas, it could potentially cause some serious injury," Dubuque police public information officer Lt. Scott Baxter said, "but, generally speaking, they are non-lethal, much like a BB gun or a pellet gun."

Of greater concern to police and school officials, however, is the airsoft gun's close resemblance to a real gun.

"If the student would display that towards other students, towards a faculty member or even towards us, the consequences could be deadly," Baxter said, "and that's absolutely what we don't want."

Though non-lethal, these airsoft pistols are still weapons and therefore banned on school grounds by the district's zero-tolerance weapons policy.

Baxter said police have seen the number of airsoft guns in the community rising in the past five years, citing the increasing amount of casual gun use displayed in the media and kids' emulation of a thug culture portrayed therein.

Following the two school incidents in the past week, police want to warn parents and students alike about the dangers of airsoft guns.

"Before somebody gets seriously hurt or killed, we want to make sure that everybody at least was forewarned, you know, 'This is what potentially could happen,' and, again, asking the parents to step up and do their job as well," Baxter said.

He cited Dubuque's parental responsibility ordinance, which allows Dubuque County prosecutors to charge parents if there's probable cause their children's criminal or delinquent behavior stemmed back to them.

The first of the district's two incidents in the past week involving airsoft guns happened on Thursday, when three Washington Middle School students brought a total of four airsoft guns to school. The discovery prompted officials to put the school on lockdown.

"Our first response is always to try and keep people safe," Washington Middle School principal Mark Burns said, "so when we uncovered the first airsoft pistol, we contacted the police."

It's an incident school officials and police alike never want to see, but then it happened again, elsewhere. This time it was on Monday morning, on a school bus carrying Roosevelt Middle and Hempstead High school students, where police say a kid shot an airsoft gun at least twice.

Nobody was seriously injured, but the two incidents prompted the Dubuque Community School District to send out an e-mail to parents Tuesday, encouraging them to have a talk with their kids.

"It's not acceptable in school and we don't tolerate weapons in school," the district's school and community relations director Mike Cyze said. "We want to remind people it's serious. There's disciplinary action, there are police charges that can come from this, and it's a very serious offense, even though it's just seemingly a toy gun."

Police say the biggest danger comes in the airsoft gun's resemblance to a real gun - and how an officer might have to respond to that in a split-second situation.

"To us, they are considered a potentially deadly weapon until we can prove otherwise," Baxter said, "and often times we can't do that with just seconds at our disposal, and potentially we have thousands of kids to protect at each one of our schools, and we don't have that luxury of sitting down and trying to determine, 'Well, is that a real gun or not a real gun?'"

While owning an airsoft gun isn't illegal, a school is no place for them.

"As I told the kids on last Thursday," Burns said, "my concern was, if you had this and it were displayed, it could end in tragedy, and we don't want that. I don't want a police officer having to live with that trying to protect 800 people here in this building."

Burns and other Washington Middle School officials went around to each classroom Thursday afternoon, following the lockdown, and talked with students about why it happened and why airsoft guns are dangerous.

"Our officers can't wait to find out if the projectile that's going to hit them is plastic or if it's a real bullet, so they have to make that call in a split second, knowing lives are in the balance if they hesitate," Baxter said. "The vast majority of these guns do look very realistic, and not just the handguns. There are rifles, assault rifle type versions, that do look very realistic, too."

As far as accessibility, a quick online search yields some pretty sobering results. Even on the cheaper end, airsoft guns can look practically indistinguishable from real guns and sell for less than $10.

The city of Dubuque prohibits carrying and firing airsoft guns in city limits with a permit.

School officials said Thursday's and Monday's incidents appear unrelated and the students involved are facing charges.

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