This article is for informational purposes only and nothing in this article should be treated as legal advice. The reader should carefully study both local laws as well as the laws of their country for more detailed information.
One of the appeals of airsoft is the realistic look of the airsoft guns. However, this is also problematic as they can be confused with real guns. The two arguments used to restrict airsoft guns are:
1)Realistic-looking weapons can be easily obtained without a background check and be used in a crime
2)Police may think a person with an airsoft replica has a real gun and may shoot the person given the perceived threat.
The first argument has been somewhat reduced by increasing penalties for use of a "toy" gun in a crime to be similar to use of a real gun.
The problem of law enforcement identifying what is a replica and what is a real gun remains. A National Institute of Justice study showed that making guns brightly colored or transparent would reduce the chance of a police officer mistaking it for a real weapon. However over half of the officers in the study mistook a brightly colored pistol for a real weapon so even bright coloration did not eliminate the risk. Obviously, the best solution would be to avoid taking replica weapons into a public area.
United States Federal Law
The United States does not consider airsoft guns to be firearms as the projectiles are powered by air rather than explosives. An airsoft gun that used real steel frames or receivers would be considered a firearm even if air powered. The descriptors "toy", "imitation", "replica" and "look-alike" firearms are often used to describe airsoft guns. Note that some states have enacted laws that call them firearms even if the federal government has not.
Marking of airsoft guns was originally covered in the Federal Toy Gun Act of 1988 (itself tacked onto another bill " The Federal Energy Management Improvement Act"). The law simply states that is illegal to manufacture, enter into commerce, ship, transport or receive any imitation firearm that does not have markings approved by the Department of Commerce. The original marking requirement was a blaze orange plug placed at least 6 mm into the barrel. Exceptions to this law included imitation firearms used in the entertainment industry, e.g., movie props, as well as guns that fired metallic projectiles. Hence traditional BB and pellet guns do not need the orange tip while airsoft guns do.
Blaze orange tip per federal law
The US Department of Commerce updated the marking requirements in 2008 (15 C.F.R. 1150.3(a)). The new requirement allowed the blaze orange plug in the old requirement as well as a blaze orange band that covered the entire circumference of the outer barrel (minimum 6mm). Alternatively, the gun could be transparent or colored white, bright red, bright orange, bright yellow, bright green, bright blue, bright pink, or bright purple.
A common question is whether removing or painting over the orange tip is illegal. Per federal regulations, the marking applies to the manufacture, buying, selling, shipping, transporting, or receiving the gun. The law does not mention owning or possessing a weapon with or without the marking so technically the marking could be removed after purchase. However, every gun that is sold and purchased must have the marking. This includes the selling of airsoft guns on eBay as well as classified ads.
Transport involves moving the airsoft gun. So to be entirely compliant with federal law, guns being taken to an airsoft field should have an orange tip. If the gun is locked in a case, it is unlikely to be a problem but should have an orange tip to be 100% compliant with the law. The tip can be changed at the airsoft field legally if the field allows it.
States are free to create more restrictive laws regarding airsoft guns but cannot directly conflict with the federal law.
For reason of space, I cannot cover all state laws but I will cover California. The California Legislature passed in September 2014 one of the most restrictive airsoft laws in the country. The law went into effect January 1, 2016. The law expands the federal restrictions on manufacture, commerce, and transport to the more extensive marking of airsoft guns (in addition to the blaze orange tip required by federal law). Handguns must also have a fluorescent colored trigger guard and a 2 cm band around the handgrip. Long guns need a fluorescent colored trigger guard and a 2 cm band around 2 of the following: pistol grip, buttstock, and magazine. Although the law states these markings should not be designed for removal, the stores I've been to in California used painter's tape to make the bands and mark the trigger guard.
Like the federal restrictions, this does not mention ownership and possession. Removal of the markings after purchase and transport home is not specifically prohibited by the law. However, the scenarios of transporting to the field are still valid. To be compliant with the law, the trigger guard and bands must be applied prior to transport. You can always keep a roll of painters' tape with you if you want to be 100% compliant but keeping the gun in a locked case may be more convenient.
Buying and selling in California are equally challenging. As the law covers both selling and purchasing, the law applies to transactions even to states that are not covered by SB199. It is less likely that the law will be enforced in cases involving other states but is required by the letter of the law.
Canada takes a different approach than the United States by treating airsoft guns as firearms. There are three types of airsoft firearms.
1)Replica firearms are airsoft guns that resemble a real weapon and fire at 365 FPS (feet/sec) using 0.2gm BBs. These replica firearms are illegal in Canada. If the original gun shot less than 365 FPS, it could be upgraded prior to import to be made legal.
2)Uncontrolled firearms are airsoft guns that resemble a real weapon and fire between 365 and 500 FPS with 0.2gm BBs. Note that any transparent guns are considered uncontrolled firearms regardless of FPS. These airsoft guns are legal to purchase and own in Canada and can be imported by mail.
3)Controlled firearms are airsoft guns that fire over 500 FPS with 0.2gm BBs or 5.7 Joules of energy). These guns are treated like real-steel firearms and regulated by the government including license and registration requirements, e.g., requiring owners to have a Possession and Acquisition License (PAL).
Clear-bodied airsoft guns can shoot below 365 FPS in Canada
As part of the Violent Crime Reduction Bill in 2006, purchase of airsoft guns was restricted to persons over 18 as well as having to be transparent or brightly colored (blue, green, orange, pink, purple, red, and yellow). UKARA (United Kingdom Airsoft Retailers Association) was formed in response to facilitating the sale of any airsoft gun that is realistically colored. These guns, known as Realistic Imitation Firearms (RIF), could be sold and purchased by retailers and purchasers that had registered with UKARA and received a license. UKARA also registers airsoft sites that host games to allow RIFs to be used.
Brightly colored airsoft guns can be purchased without a UKARA license
The laws may not make sense and you may not agree with them but knowing the actual content of the law is important. The best place to use your airsoft gun is a designated airsoft field/arena or private property. If you are using private property, e.g., your backyard, either make sure you are shielded from view or inform your neighbors. Never take your replica (even with legal markings) into a public place, e.g., schoolyard, empty parking lot or Public Park. As the NIJ study showed, it may cost you your life.
TABLE 1: Airsoft Laws by County (from AirsoftGI)
Marking (Federal) Title 15 (Part 272)
Article on History of the Federal Toy Gun Law
Laws in Canada
Airsoft Laws by Country