Splat! Guns, paint add up to a ball

Posted: Sunday, March 19, 2000

Four teen-age boys aimed guns at each other Saturday morning at Sandy Beach and shot without remorse.

When all but one were struck down, they got up and reloaded their paint ball guns.

``It's fast-paced, invigorating,'' said 18-year-old Pat Grieser. ``You get to be outside, shoot people and it doesn't really count.''

Almost every weekend people get together to play paint ball, but the game Saturday was an effort to draw together the disperse players into a nonprofit organization.

``The city's made it pretty hard to play,'' said Brian Weed, 18, who organized the games Saturday. ``Kind of like the four-wheelers, they've outlawed most of the places we can play.''


Weed hopes by becoming an official group, paint ballers will have enough clout to convince the city to set aside an area for them to play.

``Hikers have it. The archery club has it,'' Weed said. ``Why can't we have it?''

More than 150 people play paint ball in Juneau. The Saturday game was scheduled during the high school and college spring break, so most of the players were young men. But Weed also knows state workers and high school girls who play.

``It's an amazing amount of diverse people, everybody from 10-year-olds to 40-year-olds,'' said Steve Bean at Western Auto, where paint ball equipment is sold and serviced daily.

``If we get another Vietnam we'll have a whole bunch of trained guys that are very good at tactics,'' Bean said.

Paint ball is often described as an adult version of tag, hide and seek, and capture the flag. Players wield guns powered by carbon dioxide which shoot marble-sized balls of paint. The paint tags players who are then out.

Really it's more like the traditional cops and robbers games children have always played. Bang-bang, you're dead. Only with paint there's no arguing ``No I'm not.''

``When I was a kid we used to do the same thing with BB guns. You were supposed to shoot below the waist,'' Bean said. It was more dangerous than today's paint ball games, and done without parental knowledge. ``Sometimes (mom) would ask where I got all those welts.''

Over the last 20 years, paint ball has reached the status of a legitimate sport, and a big industry. There are paint ball teams, paint ball magazines, paint ball competitions and even professional paint ball players.

``There's an actual pro circuit like there is for surfing or anything else down south,'' Bean said. ``There's kids making a living on this.''

Down south, middle-aged professionals pay to play on courses designed to mimic cities, jungles and historic battlefields.

``All these computer guys go out once a month to the range and hunt each other,'' said Bean, who's son is one of them. ``It's kind of funny; all these guys worth a million each running around with paint balls.''

Barbara Hey, Los Angeles sales manager for National Paintball Supply, says her company makes 100,000 to 150,000 sales a day. And they're the second largest paint ball equipment supplier.

``It's really big. It's worldwide,'' she said Friday.

A basic paint ball helmet and gun start at $225. There's no upper limit and many people spend $500 or more on gear. Some players prefer to make their own.

``I built it all,'' said Lacey Ingalls, 17, holding up his fully automatic gun with its laser sight. His mask has a built-in fan to keep it from fogging and he's wearing a wet suit under his camouflage to protect him from the paint balls.

``His gun worries me a bit, how many times I'm going to get hit,'' said Weed. The marble-sized paint balls fly at up to 300 feet per second. They sting when they hit, especially at close range. Weed points out a crack in his helmet from being hit point blank between the eyes.

``You come home with welts and bruises,'' he said.

But nothing worse. The helmets do their job and everyone wears them.

Saturday morning Weed gave the starting call: ``Masks down. . .we're go.''

Then silence.

Water dripped from the moss, from the crumbling cement.

There was a rustle, a snap. Wind? Or someone creeping, crouched along the broken wall.

Thwwpt, thwwpt, thwwpt. Paint balls flew by, splattering the walls in bright green, fuschia and orange. A few pinged and echoed as they hit a rusted metal chute.

``I'm hit,'' said Weed, coming out with his hands up. Green paint stained his right shoulder.

One hit, you're out, even if the paint just hits the gun, ``because if this was a war, which it's not but we're pretending it is, if your gun gets hit you're dead,'' Weed said.

As the boys reloaded, a couple of middle-aged women stopped their walk to visit. They were delighted to see gun-toting boys in camouflage, being paint ball players themselves.

``What a great place to play,'' they said, admiring the remains of a 100-year-old hospital that once served the town of Treadwell. The cement ruins look like they've already been bombed in a war.

Not everyone appreciates the game. In the last few years the actions of a few paint ballers drew fire from Juneau residents. In September 1998 a cat was killed by a paint balls and another was hurt. Other incidents of paint ball crime are occasionally reported - vehicles shot at, drive-by attacks, and buildings marked with the bright paint splatters.

``It's an occasional problem. The majority of people who use paint balls use them very respectfully, carefully, but there are a few, usually juveniles, who use them inappropriately,'' said Juneau police Sgt. Tom Wehnes. ``When people are using paint balls they need to just be responsible for their actions and they need to be aware of other people and property.''

As long as walkers stay on the trails in Sandy Beach, they're safe from flying paint balls, Weed said. But he worries about the dogs that run freely on the beach.

``People complain about us playing paint ball out here, but they don't obey the leash laws,'' Weed said. ``So we have a chance of getting bit. We have control of where we point the guns, but they have no control of their dogs.''

As the morning went on, more players arrived, until they were able to divide into teams of six for games of capture the flag. Red and orange duct tape arm bands identified the teams as they crept through the brush.

``It can be more of an art, how close you can get to the guy before you kill,'' Weed said. ``Kind of play with him a bit, let him know you could have shot him but didn't.''

When they leave the area is littered with orange, green, fuschia, gold and burgundy balls. Walls and trees are decorated with paint, already washing away in the rain. The shells take longer, a few weeks, to dissolve away.

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