Traditionally used as hunting weapons for small game such as fowl, squirrels and rabbits, the role of the BB (ball-bearing) gun has changed since the 1980s. It is now largely a recreational toy that people use for target practice. The new generation of BB weapons, called airsoft guns, has considerably lower muzzle velocity compared with the old Red Ryder or Marksman brands. Also, many models closely resemble real firearms. In Europe and Japan, airsoft guns are the primary tool in a game similar to our paintball competitions in the United States.
Federal Gun Control Act
While the federal government doesn’t classify BB or airsoft guns as firearms, most cities in the U.S. do, by including in their ordinances any weapon that fires a projectile using a spring or compressed air. Because of this, discharging a BB gun in your urban or suburban backyard may violate local laws. State laws are generally more lenient concerning BB guns, but a few — such as those in Michigan and California — are stricter in regard to who may sell them. In general, it is usually legal to shoot BB guns outside any city as long as you don’t violate other laws, such as harming people, personal property or animals (other than hunting), and then you must possess a hunting license.
All BB guns sold in the U.S. must have an orange tip on the barrel about a quarter of an inch in length, identifying it as a toy and not an real firearm. Because of repeated accidental shootings by law enforcement officers who mistake airsoft guns for actual weapons, this law makes sense. In most areas, it is legal for the owner of airsoft guns to remove the orange indicator, though regulations vary widely and, for safety’s sake, doing so is inadvisable.
Carrying BB Guns in Public
Because airsoft guns resemble real firearms so closely that even law enforcement professionals can’t tell the difference from a distance, many cities have laws that ban carrying of BB guns in public. The commission of a crime — such as robbery or kidnapping — using an airsoft or other BB gun is a felony everywhere in the U.S. and is punishable under the same guidelines used for real weapons.
The Brady Act
You may not own, use or possess any kind of BB gun or actual firearm if you spent a year or more in prison, are a fugitive, are deemed mentally unstable in court or reside in a mental hospital. The same rules apply if you are a drug addict, suffer a dishonorable discharge from any branch of military, are an illegal immigrant, are the subject of a restraining order, have been convicted of a misdemeanor for domestic violence or have renounced your U.S. citizenship.