Battalion Airsoft Arena

by Tim Gilmore, 10/5/2018

1. Guns, Role Models and Christ

Chris Webster stands before a wall display of toy replicas of Glock semi-automatic pistols, AR-15s, and grenade launchers that look startlingly similar to real weapons, and says, “My main objective in starting this business was to bring young men to Christ.”

Chris owns Battalion Airsoft Arena, housed in a 48,000 square-foot 1950s warehouse on Dennis Street in loosely-aggregated urban Mixon Town, northeast of North Riverside and west of LaVilla and Brooklyn.

Airsoft is the contemporary equivalent of yesterday’s paintball. Though players in the 1970s called the weapons “soft air guns,” referring to compressed fluids used to propel small plastic bullets, only in the past few years has Airsoft’s popularity surged in suburban neighborhoods and made disturbing headlines across the country.

At Battalion Airsoft, kids wear full tactical military gear, use replicas of military-grade weapons that shoot six millimeter plastic BBs, and engage in battle across a warehouse floor meant to represent the city.

Not only does the “arena” contain partial building look-alikes, but it uses stationary cars and stations meant to represent parts of the city like the Jacksonville Port Authority. The Jacksonville Landing Mass Shooting, in which David Katz shot 12 people, killing two of them, then shot and killed himself, at a downtown video game tournament, brought just such a game simulation to life. And death.

Before Chris opened Battalion Airsoft, he says, his back yard in the suburban subdivision of Osprey Pointe, between Hodges Boulevard and San Pablo Road, had become a “MilSim [military simulation] battleground” for neighborhood children.

“First it was just me and my son running around, shooting each other. Then all the neighborhood kids came over. We’d have about a hundred kids running around with their rifles.”

When his back yard became too crowded, Chris says, he started Airsoft games at his church, Monument Point Fellowship on Mount Pleasant Road in Fort Caroline.

“Airsoft was a way for me to bring young boys before godly men,” Chris says. “Our country is suffering right now because of a lack of male role models.”

2. The Urgency of Masculinity for Little Boys

At Battalion Airsoft Summer Camp’s simulations, children aged eight to 15 dart around corners with assault rifles, hide behind wall panels with semiautomatic pistols, and stand idly in line with their AR-15s, occasionally siting them when not staring down at their sneakers.

Wearing their camo, their tactical vests, their headgear, their tiny shoulders hardly bulge, their big round eyes stare out scared or excited, their ears and cowlicks stand out from their eager new faces.

A camp leader with the silhouette of an assault rifle imprinted on a black t-shirt faces half a dozen little boys. He tilts his head back, extends his chin, aiming to look tough with his chin patch and mustache, wearing his cargo shorts, holding a pistol by his side. He’s fielding questions. The boys look up to him. He represents manhood. There’s no topic more sensitive to young boys than their own future masculinity, or lack thereof, and what it might mean for their value as human beings. He aims the butt of the rifle just over his shoulder, crouches, and steps slowly before his audience of prepubescent boys.

Children proceed through wooden structures across this simulation of the city. One boy enters a room, both arms extended, a pistol in each gloved hand.

Little boys hide behind walls. They carry big guns. Their fingers are little on barrels and triggers. Their eyes skim corners. Slow down the image of their large and earnest eyes looking up at us. So many little boys need so badly to be men, and so many men so desperately need to demonstrate their masculinity for little boys.

3. Round 2 of Florida Tomorrow

Though Airsoft weapons, including assault rifles and grenade launchers, so resemble real guns that police officers often can’t tell the difference, only New Mexico, New York and New Jersey currently ban their use in public.

In the last few years, inevitably, Airsoft guns have dramatized headlines. In 2016, police arrested two teenagers in Little Rock for firing Airsoft semiautomatic handguns and revolvers into traffic; the boys had unknowingly fired on an off-duty Little Rock police officer. In August 2018, four teenagers, one only 13 years old, were arrested after multiple armed robberies in California’s Inland Empire, using Airsoft assault rifles and pistols. As police searched for teenage boys reported in six armed robberies, The San Bernardino Sun reported on August 14th, “Investigators learned the group was responsible for a series of similar attacks in Ontario, Rancho Cucamonga, San Bernardino, Riverside and other Inland Empire cities.”

Locally, Airsoft headlines have included Kindergartners, high school students, scares at Jacksonville’s beaches, and the punishment of a four-year-old boy.

In March 2015, a student at St. Marys Middle School just north of Jacksonville and the Georgia border, “accidentally” brought an Airsoft gun to school. Camden County School Superintendent William Hardin said gun threats had been found in the girls’ bathroom at St. Marys Elementary.

On September 15, 2015, several Atlantic Beach residents called 911 when they saw masked men with assault rifles walking through a construction site. Police found four young men shooting each other with Airsoft guns. The Atlantic Beach Police Department issued a public statement via Facebook, saying, “The neighbors who saw these individuals had no idea that the guns were not real and neither did the responding officers.” Fortunately, no one died of a responding officer’s very real bullet.

Edward Kimbrough, Jr., 14 years, was not so lucky. Just after 11 pm, December 12, 2015, a woman called the police reporting an “armed prowler” outside her window. When Officer Josh Livingston arrived, he told the boy to put his hands up. When Kimbrough pulled out his Airsoft pistol, Livingston, assuming the gun to be real, fired six shots, fortunately only hitting Kimbrough once in the leg.

On Sunday, May 7, 2017, Jacksonville Beach police arrested Ryan Ivey of Mississippi, whom they found near an empty lifeguard stand with a semi-automatic pistol, which turned out to be an Airsoft gun. The man was shooting seagulls.

On November 28, 2017, the Associated Press reported a 36-year-old man named Mark Cox arrested just northwest of Tampa for shooting a four-year-old boy with an Airsoft gun as punishment for not sitting down when told.

Then came the mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2018, when former student Nikolas Cruz killed 14 students and three teachers and wounded 17 others with an AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle.

While in nearly every other wealthy nation, from Australia to Japan to Germany, strong gun laws made dying of a gunshot as rare as death by lightning or falling off a ladder, American mass shootings, permitted by weak gun laws, had become the norm.

In November 2014, Nikolas Cruz’s neighbors had reported him shooting chickens in the neighborhood with an Airsoft rifle. He’d also been reported shooting squirrels with a pellet gun. Cruz’s stepmother confiscated his Airsoft gun and the owner of the chickens pressed no charges.

After the Parkland shooting, Broward County’s WFLA News aired video, recorded by a neighbor the previous October, of Nikolas Cruz standing in his back yard, aiming an Airsoft pistol at neighboring homes. The neighbor said Cruz regularly used the Airsoft gun for backyard target practice.

The day after the massacre, police arrested a South Carolina ninth-grader who posted a Snapchat selfie in which he wore a mask, held up an assault rifle, and said, “Round 2 of Florida tomorrow.” Police raided the boy’s home, found the assault rifle to be an Airsoft gun, and removed him to juvenile detention.

National news stories reported Dick’s Sporting Goods would stop selling assault weapons at its stores and that Walmart and Dick’s would no longer sell Airsoft assault weapon toys online.

In May 2018, a Kindergartner at Browning Pearce Elementary School, east of Gainesville, told his teacher another five-year-old had a gun in his backpack. The teacher found an Airsoft gun, removed the student from class, and called his parents.

In the second week of the current school year, August 21, 2018, someone reported a student with a gun at Mandarin High School in suburban Jacksonville, and authorities found an Airsoft weapon in the student’s car.

4. I Never Saw the Guns as about Killing People

When I ask Karen Floyd, property manager for Osprey Pointe Homeowners’ Association, about backyard Airsoft games in the neighborhood, she says it’s the first she’s heard of it. She’s not quite sure what Airsoft even is. I quote to her Chris Webster’s saying, “We’d have about a hundred kids running around with their rifles.”

Floyd says, “I will say we’ve not had complaints about it. It’s never come before the board, but there’s also nothing in the rules that would prevent or prohibit or restrict it.”

John Phillips, senior pastor at Monument Point Fellowship, where Webster moved the games when they outgrew his back yard, says Airsoft never bothered him.

“It started as a youth fundraiser,” Phillips says. “We have about five acres on the property for the kids to do it. I never saw the guns as about killing people. We just had some great lessons about teamwork.”

5. The Hero of My Own Zombie Story

If I were 18 years old and learned I could don full tactical gear and grab an assault rifle and wander the city, seeking out the Undead, I’d become the hero of my own zombie story.

When I was 16, tall, skinny as a corpse, though I ate pizza with the appetite of a zombie for brains, I wore a black Night of the Living Dead t-shirt to school, thought George Romero a genius, listened to various shades of gothic in bands like Sonic Youth, Black Sabbath, Fields of the Nephilim, even death metal bands like Deicide and Kreator, whom I saw live downtown at the Milk Bar.

A book club sent me, as one of six free selections for joining, an illustrated dictionary of assault weapons. Stony, 21 years old, still a high school student, hair to his waist, with pointed eyebrows and goatee, stopped by my bedroom built into the old garage, a step down from the rest of the house, separated by a bead curtain, 1991, approved of my death metal compact discs and the books that stacked my shelves. He respected most that assault rifle compendium, growled a guttural “yeah,” ducked his chin down into his chest and looked up at me, thin-faced, from beneath his satanic eyebrows.

I’d always loved zombie novels and movies, recognized Mary Shelley’s genius in Frankenstein, embarrassed by the full display of male insecurities, each of which I owned, in Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend.

Zombie films made perfect sense. Democracy became frightening when most people knew nothing, cared nothing about what little they knew, made fun of the smart and talented kids, and bragged of their ignorance and bigotries. Night of the Living Dead, Romero’s ’68 no-budget nihilistic classic, faced honestly its lowbrow shit-kitsch, made no bones about its overhanded racial message, its protagonist the one black man fighting off brainless white hordes.

6. What Comes of Demanding of Boys that they Break

The boys are little. The guns are big. Their eyes are round and innocent and pure and afraid and eager.

Their vulnerability and susceptibility to any performative semblance of manhood should break all our hearts.

And if it does not, then, having been a little boy myself, I warn you.

I remember a Baptist church camp at the St. Marys River. Was I 13, maybe 14? My mother had died not long before. A church vocalist who’d sung with local Southern Rock bands in the 1970s and sounded just like the singer from Jacksonville’s Molly Hatchet showed us how to position the butt of the rifle against our tender shoulders.

I’d held my father’s pistol before. He’d shown me where he kept it in his bureau drawer. When no one was home, I’d held it to my temple, just to see what it felt like, wondered how quickly I might disappear, wondered what kept me, if I imagined pulling the trigger, from doing it. When I fired the rifle at the St. Marys, it almost knocked me down.

Though young men’s upper bodies gain greater strength with greater ease, masculinity, as it structures itself in our minds and our streets, comes into itself rigidly, and rigidity being fragile, tightly constructed and defined, boys desperately trying to understand their place in their bodies in the world so often find they’re granted not the flexibility of a tall pine in a tropical storm, but the fixedness of the barrel of an AR-15, and so, under pressure, can only seek, as they’ve been primed, to destroy the universe they’re not happy to have birthed them and constricted and contained them.

There’s a little boy with a big gun on the floor at Battalion Airsoft’s summer camp. I look at him look at me. His jeans are baggy, as is his sweatshirt. It’s not just his little hands that grip the assault weapon. It’s not just his defensive crouch in a corner, a stance that could very well be his last before a SWAT team blasts him to pieces. It’s his eyes. It’s his eyes looking up at me through facemask and headgear. It’s the innocence in his eyes that might be the last sight a cop sees before hitting all trigger responses and blasting this little boy away.

It’s his eyes, looking into mine, demanding of me, though he knows it not, why we require of our boys their willingness for death, their valuation as easy negation, the definition of their very gender as the need to break before bending, no better friend but no worse enemy, suicide before compromise.

Should I see him, crouched behind a corner with his mask and his weapon, as a hero? What have we done to him, to demand he define himself thus? What can we do to offer him a better version of himself, to tell him he could define himself otherwise and unconstricted entirely?

Can’t you, can’t I, extend to him a capable and gentle hand, encourage his imagination and intellect, show him how gentleness requires strength, offer him heroism through education and art and intelligence and grace and diplomacy and love, tell him that whomsoever-he-is can define what he comes to know of himself, show him that nobody else can show him him?