BY BRIAN MORTONAND MATTHEW ROBINSON, VANCOUVER SUN JANUARY 6, 2015
It’s a shooting sport often compared to paintball, but instead of firing balls of paint, players shoot small plastic BBs.
However, the sport also uses realistic-looking guns that have been implicated in several recent U.S. police shootings where officers mistook them for deadly weapons.
The sport is called Airsoft and members of Richmond city council decided Monday night to reject businessman Eric Lam’s application to build an indoor facility for the sport on city land.
City staff had already rejected Lam’s proposal because it didn’t fit with the city’s zoning and firearms bylaws, but he had asked city council to reconsider.
In an interview before the vote, Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie cited zoning and broader public concerns about the use of firearms and public safety.
“The report says it contravenes the rules, so the question is: does council want to change the rules?” said Brodie, adding that he was specifically concerned the sport was dangerous for participants and that the guns players use look too realistic.
A majority of councillors voted against allowing the business, with only councillors Carol Day and Alexa Loo voting in favour.
“I find this activity totally abhorrent,” said Coun. Harold Steves.
Earlier, Lam told councillors his $523,000 facility — the first of its kind in B.C. — could bring as many as 10,000 participants annually.
Addressing some of the concerns, Lam said many paintball guns — which are sanctioned by the city — look like real firearms. He showed councillors a video from a local paintball operation to show that sport does not look much different from Airsoft.
“Most of us have never seen a video like that and it freaks you out,” said Day.
Councillor Ken Johnston said he was surprised the city allowed them: “These people are training for violence.”
Many councillors said the type of violence in the video was not something they wanted to see in the city.
“You want to provide a facility where guns can be shot at people gangster-style … and I want you to explain how this is safe for the city,” said Coun. Bill McNulty.
Lam told councillors Airsoft guns were already being sold in Richmond businesses and said there was a strong community following for the sport. He asked councillors how the city intended to stop people from playing the game in their homes — adding that in his facility, trained staff could monitor players.
He argued that sports like Airsoft and paintball have a lower rate of injury than many other sports played on a daily basis in the city. He also showed a second video that compared conventional Airsoft BBs to paintballs. The video showed that paintballs hit their targets with much greater force than do Airsoft BBs. But the mayor and some councillors said they were more concerned about people getting seriously hurt outside the facility.
Johnston asked whether Lam thought it was a good idea to have people carrying guns that looked like AR-15s or other assault rifles to the facility, and other councillors pointed to recent incidents in the U.S., where people brandishing Airsoft guns were shot and killed by police who mistook the guns for something deadlier.
One of the latest occurred Sunday when San Francisco police fatally shot a 32-year-old man who was holding what appeared to be an Airsoft pistol.
In a report to council, chief licence inspector W. Glenn McLaughlin had recommended that council uphold its decision to refuse the licence to Sigma AEG Arena to operate an Airsoft Gun Arena at 6711 Elmbridge Way.
The report noted, among other things, that the facility would operate in an area zoned Industrial Business Park, “which does not include an indoor shooting range as a permitted use,” and that an Airsoft gun — which can shoot up to 700 BBs per minute — falls within the city’s definition of a firearm.
Day said she wanted to hear more from possible stakeholders like the RCMP before rejecting the proposal.
“It’s still a business. We may not understand it and we may not like it, but it’s still a business,” she said. “If we better understood it, we would probably all support it.”
Councillors also directed staff to look further into whether Airsoft should be permissible in the future.