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These guns should never be played with: Replica guns, which look like the real thing and can injure, are becoming a playground craze. Christine Aziz reports

FOURTEEN-year-old Ryan had been spending a weekend with a schoolfriend, when his mother received a call from the family saying he had been shot in the eye by a 'soft air gun'. Ryan and his mates had been playing with the gun, which belonged to his friend (also 14). One of the boys had fired it, and the plastic pellet (the size of a small pea) had grazed Ryan's right retina. After five days in hospital it is still not certain whether he will regain full use of his eye.

Until then Pamela Masters, Ryan's mother, had been unaware of the popularity of soft air - or BB (ball-bearing)- guns among young teenage boys. Following the accident she did some research. She was horrified to find that not only did they very closely resemble real weapons, but that they were available at model and hobby shops and in toy departments of major stores. Mostly imported from Japan, they range in price from pounds 24 to pounds 50 and are able to fire 6mm plastic pellets at targets 10 yards away. 'They're made of plastic, but are nothing like toy guns. They can easily be mistaken for the real thing,' Pamela says.

Soft air guns do not require a licence, but they should only be sold to young people over 16 with proof of age and identity. Some stores, such as Hamleys, will not sell them to anyone under 17.

It is an offence for any child under 14 to own an air gun of any kind or to use one without an adult present. Yet according to Pamela, her son's friend had walked into his local model shop and bought one of the guns without being asked for proof of his age. 'He's not a mature looking 14-year-old either,' Pamela says.

The guns have become popular among young middle-class teenagers - especially in areas where hunting and clay pigeon shooting are popular. 'At my last prep school lots of my friends had them - they were about 11 and 12,' Ryan says. 'They use them for target practice.'

The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) has been concerned enough to set up a committee to look into the growing use of soft air guns. 'We want to recommend legislation which will control this type of gun and other replicas,' says ACPO's Supt Martin Hill. 'They are becoming more popular with young teenagers who are much more macho-oriented these days.'

Police are worried about the use of replica guns by criminals, but the apparent ease with which they can be obtained by children, particularly through mail order companies, is perhaps even more alarming. I phoned a selection of mail order suppliers currently advertising in gun and air rifle magazines, and easily found several who were willing to supply a soft air gun without proof of age. They also accept postal orders in lieu of credit cards.

In Hamleys, replica guns are displayed like an arsenal behind a counter near to the Lego section: Uzi machine guns, Luger pistols, the Desert Eagle which has just been toppled in the popularity stakes by the more compact imitation Glock 17. Requirements of the law are strictly adhered to at the store, and a representative from the country's largest importer of soft air guns, TAMCO, works alongside Hamleys sales staff.

TAMCO, based in Lancing, Sussex, have been selling soft air guns for two years. 'At the moment business is really good,' says Peter Simpson, the sales manager. 'The kids see the guns being used on television and want to buy copies. Generations before it was cowboy guns, because that's what you saw most of on TV.'

He says the company is very aware of safety factors, and each gun is tested in a government-approved laboratory. Each box contains a translation of the Japanese instructions which include illustrated warnings against firing the gun directly at people. 'The guns are purely for firing at targets which are included in the box.'

I bought a Desert Eagle soft air gun from Forbidden Planet, a games shop in London's New Oxford Street. A book for the names and addresses of all buyers is kept on the counter at the insistence of the police as a response to their use in crime, but I was not asked for mine.

The Desert Eagle is very similar to the gun that shot Ryan, and although one licensed gun shop owner insisted 'the pellets would bounce off your cat,' the gun looked very intimidating. It would be terrifying enough to have one pointed at you, let alone fired. Equally worrying is Ryan's observation that the gun which shot him was accompanied only by a poor photocopy of an English translation of the instructions and safety rules.

Pamela Masters believes that an increasing number of boys are buying the guns for protection. 'Ryan tells me that when he is home in London in the holidays he feels very afraid of being on the streets, and that a gun like the one that shot him would make him feel safer.'

She would like to see the guns banned, certainly to anyone under 18 - 'if, after the age of 18, people want to blow their brains out that's up to them.' She fears, however, that as the guns become more popular and fashionable with teenagers - as they seem bound to do - any move towards tightening the law will come too late to prevent more children being injured like Ryan.

(Photograph omitted)