by Tim Gilmore, 10/5/2018
1. Guns, Role Models, Jesus
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 that in some ways replicates 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. In late August 2018, David Katz shot 12 people, killing two of them, then shot and killed himself, at a video game tournament downtown at the Jacksonville Landing, bringing 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,” he says. “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 replicated 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, one of Chris Webster’s “godly men,” with the silhouette of an assault rifle imprinted on a black t-shirt, faces down half a dozen little boys. He tilts his head back, extends his chin, aiming to look tough with his chin patch and mustache, wearing 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 either 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.
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 closely 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, Arkansas for firing Airsoft semiautomatic handguns and revolvers into traffic; unknowingly the boys had 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 and regionally, 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 or was injured from 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 to report 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, have 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 threatened, “Round 2 of Florida tomorrow.” Police raided the boy’s home, found the assault rifle to be an Airsoft gun, and removed the boy 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, an hour 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. “Never Saw 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.”
“I will say,” Floyd says, “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. 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 on 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. Once when no one was home, I held it to my temple, just to see what it felt like. I wondered how quickly I might disappear, wondered what kept me, if I imagined pulling the trigger, from doing it. What was the difference between imagining and doing? When I fired the rifle at the St. Marys River, it almost knocked me down.
Growing up, boys’ upper bodies gain greater strength with greater ease, but 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, which 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 how little are his hands as they 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 filling this little boy with bullets.
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, no worse enemy,” suicide before compromise.
Should I see him, crouched behind a corner with his mask and his weapon, as a hero? What harm have we done him, to demand he define himself thus? What can we do to offer him a better version of himself, to show him he can write his own self, determine himself otherwise?
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, while violence needs but weakness and loss of control, bid him heroism through education and art and intelligence and grace and diplomacy and love, tell him that only he can best discover himself and his identity, promise him that nobody else—no one but him—can show him him and determine, for himself, his worth? On just such need his hope depends; so does ours.