The BB gun, like the classic Red Ryder celebrated in a popular holiday film, is a traditional Christmas gift that has always come wrapped in a certain risk. Now the toy carries a threat that has nothing to do with putting an eye out: a $500 fine and two months in jail.
It is a misdemeanor in Baltimore to sell or give a BB gun to anyone younger than 18, under an ordinance adopted by the City Council this month.
In one of America's most murderous cities, where juvenile homicides are up 50 percent this year compared with last, officials are fed up with toy guns that look like the real thing.
"We're dealing with a different element now," Council President Sheila Dixon said. "If you give it to a minor and we trace it back, that person will be fined or charged with a crime."
Forget the romance of the Red Ryder, the wooden-stock BB rifle designed in 1938 and portrayed as a boy's to-die-for holiday gift in the 1983 movie, A Christmas Story. Some of the most popular BB guns these days don't resemble the long guns of the Wild West, but the semiautomatic pistols packed by street thugs.
And instead of playing with the guns - taking target practice at Coke bottles or, at worst, terrorizing squirrels - some Baltimoreans are using them to prey on people, police say.
City police do not track how often BB guns are used to commit crimes, but say they're turning up more often in the hands of offenders. The toys are much easier to obtain than real weapons, police say, and won't result in gun charges in the event of an arrest.
Two 15-year-olds - one armed with a BB gun, the other with a knife - robbed and stabbed Wendell P. Rawlings last month outside the home of his sister, City Council Vice President Stephanie C. Rawlings Blake.
"Unfortunately our youth ... aren't using them for recreation," Rawlings Blake said.
Gun-rights advocates say the city has bigger problems than BBs. They point to recent high-profile crimes - a police officer gunned down last month, apparently for testifying in a criminal case; a family of seven wiped out in an October fire that police believe was set to punish them for reporting neighborhood drug-dealing - and call a crackdown on toys silly.
"They've been whacking witnesses and intimidating people. It's as bad as Chicago ever was," said Roy Tarbutton, legislative vice president for the Maryland State Rifle and Pistol Association Inc. "They can keep doing all the feel-good stuff they want to do. They're not addressing the problems.
"They can't control the drugs; they can't control the guns on the streets," he said. "Anybody who's going to obey the [BB gun] law is not the person who's the problem. ... Why keep hammering law-abiding citizens? Let's enforce the laws we've got."
A 1990 U.S. Department of Justice study of the criminal use of toy guns - believed to be the first and last of its kind - found the number of robberies and assaults committed with toy, replica and pneumatic guns rose 75 percent between 1985 and 1988. The study was based on a survey of about 150 law enforcement agencies.
The surge seemed partly attributed to better reporting by agencies, according to the director of the study, David L. Carter, a criminal justice professor at Michigan State University. But he said toys and police were tangling more and more, often with tragic results for officer and BB gunman alike.
"We interviewed a number of officers who were involved in these shootings," Carter said in an interview last week. "They just couldn't come to grips with it, they couldn't cope with it. ... It destroyed his or her life once they discovered they had shot and killed a person and that person just had a toy gun."
What makes the toys dangerous is precisely what makes them appealing to wannabe gunslingers: They're dead ringers for the real thing.
"You should see some of these guns. The slide works; the magazine comes out," said Baltimore police Col. Robert Stanton, chief of detectives.
Stanton had a "Winchester-looking air gun" as a child growing up on suburban Long Island, but he shakes his head at toys like the pellet gun he displayed at a recent meeting of police officials.
"It looked so much like a Glock 17, when I put it on the table to show the commanders, a couple of them wouldn't pick it up because they thought it was a real gun," he said. "It can be really frightening.
"We just had a homicide in the Western District where the robber wielded a BB gun and the victim in the robbery produced a real gun and shot him dead," he said. "They do look real, and in the dark and in the moment, with the element of fear involved, you don't really have time to discern."
The online catalog for Daisy Outdoor Products of Rogers, Ark., a leading BB gun maker, boasts of the "contemporary styling" of its pistols. "Looks like the real thing," it reads.
The Daisy catalog also includes a warning that BB guns should not be considered toys and should be used only under adult supervision.