Politics & Policy

‘Guns Down, Paintballs Up’: The Failure of an Inner-City Gun-Control Measure

Putting replica firearms into the hands of people who are already at high risk of being shot at turns out to be only another source of violence and terror.

Give credit where credit’s due: Rapper 21 Savage has found a healthy way to resolve his disagreements. In late March, he posted a Facebook Live video of a car stocked with paintball guns and explained to viewers that he was “undefeated.” “Tonight it’s goin’ down again,” he says. A few days later, Savage posted a video of himself and several others “hitting the whole club up,” which consisted of his squad ambushing members of another squad with paintballs in the parking lot of a club. On April 1, an Instagram video of an attack on YBN Almighty Jay, model Blac Chyna’s boyfriend, while YBN was driving in his car was posted to YouTube. By the end of the video, YBN’s car is coated in paint, and Savage’s squad are driving away triumphant.

The idea makes sense in theory: If people in the inner cities switch out their rifles for paintball guns, gun violence will decrease. As an influential voice, Savage was able to convince people in dozens of U.S. cities from Milwaukee to Greensboro to join the “guns down, paintballs up” movement and join him in working toward a peaceful resolution of inner-city violence through this pseudo-disarmament. In Atlanta, for example, police confiscated a whopping 7,500 materials related to paintball-gun war after a single battle.

In Detroit, a city saturated with gang violence, the movement caught the eye of Vice News, which dispatched reporters to conduct video interviews with a number of paintballers in the inner city. Vice concluded that the paintball guns had been a success, eliminating some of the damage and cost associated with the criminal use of real guns. One Detroiter, Quinton Kisor, told Vice that it feels “like a real shootout” when other squads shoot at him and his friends, thereby satisfying the need for settling a rivalry or providing a healthy outlet for violence.

The video ends on a somber note: Kisor and his squad will have to put down the paintball guns soon, for the police have ended this successful method of gun control by ramping up arrests for paintball possession and use. As Kisor so delicately put it: “They hate it. They hate us, bro. Us being young and black.” In response to the police chief’s warning that paintball guns look like real guns to officers and could result in a deadly-force response, paintballer Kendall Hayes tells Vice that “to the police, it’s gonna look like a real gun period. No matter what it is.”

If all you saw was Vice’s report and Savage’s personal testimony, you’d think Kisor and Hayes were onto something: Maybe the police crackdown was a racial issue — yet another example of police being biased against young black men living in the inner city. Maybe kids putting the “guns down” and picking the “paintballs up” would work, if not for those meddling cops.

Not so. Since this so-called commonsense gun-control measure took hold, people haven’t just peppered their friends or foes with paint pellets. They’ve broken windows in houses and colored businesses with neon paint splatters, attacked police cars, and assaulted unsuspecting passersby. In one week, Detroit police received 95 complaints about paintball attacks, and Milwaukee police responded to 65 reports of paintball injuries in just five days at the end of April. Two people, one in Atlanta and one in Greensboro, N.C., have died.

Supporters of the plan argue that, sure, there’s paint everywhere, nonviolent people are afraid to leave their houses, and two people have died, but better paint than bullets. This is a dangerously reductionist response; there are no data to back up the claims that the terror created by paintball wars is replacing gun violence, as idealistic supporters are implying, rather than occurring alongside it. Moreover, the paintball terror is occurring in areas — and claiming victims — that were previously insulated from the gang violence. While local police have reported large-scale paintball wars such as the one in Savage’s video, they have also been overwhelmed with cases of paintball assaults on random citizens.

Like Baltimore’s ‘Nobody Kill Anybody’ weekend, ‘Guns down, paintballs up’ is an idealistic plan resting atop the incorrect assumption that violent people behave as they do because nobody they know has suggested doing otherwise.

In Milwaukee, for example, a group of teens on their way to a paintball-gun range used the guns to assault three random men who were walking down a street. In Charlotte, a two-year-old girl was struck nine times in her front yard by a group of kids in a passing vehicle. She may be alive, but she isn’t unharmed: She’s now receiving therapy for post-traumatic agoraphobia. Her mother, who was unloading groceries inside during the attack, has decided to move her family. In Atlanta, Savage’s hometown, a car full of paintball-gun-wielding teens opened fire on patrons of a gas station in early April. One of their victims had a real gun, and fired back, killing three-year-old T’Rhigi Diggs, who was sleeping in the back of an uninvolved car. And in Greensboro, a 19-year-old who had just been questioned by police in connection with a series of paintball wars was found dead in his paint-splattered Cadillac, two gunshots in his chest.

Like Baltimore’s “Nobody Kill Anybody” weekend, “Guns down, paintballs up” is an idealistic plan resting atop the incorrect assumption that violent people behave as they do because nobody they know has suggested doing otherwise. Even worse, it’s a plan that requires putting replica firearms into the hands of people who are already at high risk of being shot at. Back to the drawing board.

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