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Editorial: The perils of paintball

A new kind of gun violence is popping up in Buffalo. It hasn’t gotten anyone killed – yet – but it has the potential to have consequences every bit as deadly as the firing of guns with real bullets. We’re talking about paintball attacks, which have been occurring with more and more frequency.

Last Friday morning, two Department of Transportation highway workers were shot in the back along the Kensington Expressway by someone using a paintball gun. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo expressed outrage at the incident, calling it “an assault” – which it was. State and local police are searching for the perpetrators.

The use of paintball guns on the streets is a disturbing trend, here in Buffalo and nationwide. The police in our region are smart to take it seriously.

“Unfortunately, these knuckleheads driving around think they are funny,” Capt. Jeffrey D. Rinaldo of the Buffalo Police Department told The Buffalo News. “What they may think is harmless fun could end in tragedy.”

As recounted in The News, there were several paintballing incidents on the West Side this year, as well as an attack this month in the University District, where a 20-year-old man was robbed and shot in the face by four masked paintballers, leaving him bloody and bruised.

According to a story in the Washington Post, deaths linked to paintball shootings were reported in Atlanta and Greensboro, N.C., this year. Police in Milwaukee were investigating a rash of 65 paintball attacks in one three-day span.

One reason for the popularity of paintball gun play is a series of videos posted by an Atlanta rapper, 21 Savage, who urges people to use paintballs instead of real bullets. The videos, posted in April, call for “guns down, paintballs up.” In response, paintball war videos on YouTube are, as they say, a thing.

A paintballer from Durham, N.C., named Jarret McClain explained the appeal to the British newspaper the Guardian. “In this generation everybody’s fascinated with guns,” McClain said. “But if you got paintball guns and you know nobody can get hurt and it won’t cause nobody’s family to cry, at the end of the day it becomes fun shooting at people.”

The reality is, there will be families crying when a paintball attack turns deadly, most likely when someone’s paintball gun looks just like a real weapon, and either a civilian or a police officer answers with deadly force.

Tamir Rice was the 12-year-old boy in Cleveland who was shot dead by a police officer while playing with an Airsoft pellet gun on a playground in November 2014. The killing of the young African-American sparked a national outcry, as well as providing a lesson in the potential for tragedy that realistic-looking toy or hobby guns create. A report on the incident by the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office said the pellet gun held by Rice was “functionally identical” to a real weapon.

“We don’t have a magic device to tell us what is a real gun and what is a toy,” said the Buffalo PD’s Rinaldo. “It puts officers in a precarious position because we do not know what we’re dealing with.”

Paintball is fine when played for sport in a controlled environment, with protective clothing worn, but bringing it onto the streets is a different matter. The police and the citizenry need to stay vigilant and nip this activity in the bud.

“You cannot discharge them in public places in the city,” Rinaldo said. “You will be charged,” possibly with criminal mischief, assault or reckless endangerment.

The public can play a role, too, by calling 911 if they see anyone firing a paintball gun in a public place.

“It doesn’t matter if you get a plate number or not,” said Rinaldo. “You need to report it.”

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