THE Department of Justice is setting up a register to license the sale of 'Airsoft' pellet guns -- plastic imitations of handguns and rifles -- that are being legally sold across the country.
The weapons, costing from €20 for a single-shot handgun up to €400 for a fully automatic imitation military assault rifle, are causing a craze among teenagers and young boys.
Gardai are concerned about the weapons, some of which cannot be distinguished from the real thing, and are warning that people who buy the weapons should be aware that it is an offence to have one in a public place under the Criminal Justice Act of 2009. It carries a punishment of up to a year in prison and a fine of up to €5,000.
Once the department's register is set up, gardai will visit premises, including those of online sellers, and take samples for inspection.
One dealer who opened up recently in Dublin city centre told the Sunday Independent his imitation weapons had been inspected and were perfectly legal. The young Chinese man had an array of handguns and rifles including a copy of the Steyr rifle used by the Army, the British army's SA80 and various US weapons. The shop was displaying a copy of an AK47.
Gardai are concerned about the guns, which they find regularly and seize during raids on the homes suspected criminals. A high proportion of weapons seized are sent for ballistic analysis each year.
In Dublin, gardai regularly advise young people that they should not have imitations in public places.
The main concern is in areas where there is gun crime and feuding and where armed gardai are on constant duty.
Teenage boys were last week firing the weapons at dogs in Dublin's north inner city, an area where there has been feuding for the past four years and where armed gardai are constantly on the streets.
The weapons are generally harmless hitting skin but can cause serious eye injury. They fire plastic pellets at a power of just under one joule -- the weight-per-velocity measurement over which a weapon is legally regarded as a firearm.
In a statement on the 'Airsoft' or 'BB' imitation firearms, the Department of Justice said: "The Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009 provides for the regulation of realistic imitation firearms such as Airsoft. The Act made it an offence to possess a realistic imitation firearm in a public place and made the use of Airsoft at specified venues subject to authorisation by a garda superintendent.
"At present there are no restrictions on the selling of Airsoft. However, the Department is in the process of setting up a register to license dealers of Airsoft."