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What are gel guns? Why a TikTok trending 'toy' has police concerned

Gel Guns can look innocuous.

Though they can be shaped to resemble rifles, AK-47s or Glocks, many are brightly colored like toys, with red or blue flourishes on black or a Creamsicle-style orange and white.

The guns – which go by several names, such as Gel Blasters, Bead Blasters or Orbi guns − shoot gel balls that range from 6 to 8 millimeters, are soaked with water and splatter on impact.

Promoted as a safer alternative to paintball or airsoft weapons, gel guns have gained popularity for those seeking to play tactical games, generally with protective clothing and masks.

But the guns have also gained infamy in recent months through a TikTok social media trend called the “#OrbeezChallenge,” in which users are encouraged to shoot people or stationary objects in “drive-by style” and post the video.

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Police across the nation have reported shooting incidents involving the guns, some causing injuries. Ramapo police say one such incident, in which a person was shot in the face with a gel gun, occurred Sunday and led to the arrest of a 16-year-old on attempted assault and other charges.

Though the guns are not illegal across the state, they are not permitted in some areas as they can be characterized as air rifles.

Here’s what to know about gel guns:

How do gel guns work?

The soft gel pellets, often just known by the brand Orbeez, which has sold them as part of science-based toys, are a super-absorbent polymer. When dry they are small, but can grow to 100 to 300 times their original size when soaked in water. They are non-lethal and non-toxic.

The guns tend to be powered by rechargeable batteries, rather than firearms or the compressed gas of a paintball gun.

The pellets supposedly bounce off bodies or simply disintegrate, leaving no stain, mess or sting, said Rockland Sheriff’s Office Detective Lt. Chris Ford, the director of the Rockland Intelligence Center, noting they can still cause injury, especially at close range.

Videos online show the pellets can leave a welt but appear to be less impactful than metal BBs or plastic airsoft pellets. However, police say they can still scare or annoy people, or cause damage if someone is hit in the eye or falls down in surprise, and many have taken to freezing the beads.

“They can be a lot of fun for kids in playground or backyard play but can be dangerous when used in an unsupervised fashion,” Ford said. “According to the literature, the projectiles are a little slower than AirSoft guns and much less dangerous than air rifles or BB guns.”

Are gel guns legal?

Ramapo Sgt. Michael Higgins said gel guns are basically a children’s toy. They can be purchased on Amazon or through several other online or brick-and-mortar stores.

“People shoot them like a paintball gun and they splatter on impact,” Higgins said.  

Gel guns and similarities are legal in New York state for people older than 16 to possess.

That doesn’t mean they can be used everywhere.

The guns are illegal in New York City, according to the NYPD, noting the beads are propelled by a spring-loaded air pump, making them an air rifle.

Counties can also set individual laws prohibiting them or air rifles in areas. In Rockland, they are prohibited in parks and on county property.

State law requires replica guns have a brightly colored stem or features to tell the police and public that it's not a firearm.

Rockland District Attorney’s Office Chief of Detectives Peter Walker said the use of gel guns, while seemingly popular, doesn’t seem criminally prevalent in Rockland.

“I think it’s fair to say we haven’t really seen any kind of pattern developing,” Walker said.

What happened in Ramapo?

Ford said the Rockland intelligence unit, working off a license plate, helped Ramapo detectives track down the alleged gel gun shooter and friends who shot a man, a Hasidic Jew, in the face at 2:20 a.m. July 31.

The Decatur Avenue shooting off Maple Avenue in Ramapo borders Spring Valley and Monsey. In recent years, Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish residents have moved into the neighborhood.

Ramapo detectives – with the assistance of a Chaverim of Rockland neighborhood watch member – “determined three juveniles were out for a joyride. A passenger in the car was shooting garbage cans with a gel gun and also struck one pedestrian in the face with a gel projectile.”

Higgins said the officers arrested a 16-year-old from Spring Valley on a felony count of second-degree attempted assault, and misdemeanor second-degree reckless endangerment, and fourth-degree criminal possession of a weapon. The case is being handled in Rockland Family Court, police said.

The incident followed a July 17 drive-by attack on Hasidic Jews walking on the streets. Police arrested four people who were riding in a pickup truck on accusations of firing a BB gun and throwing eggs at the walkers. Hasidic and Orthodox Jews – who stand out by their clothing – have become targets several times in Rockland and in New York City as reported antisemitic attacks have increased.

The four people accused − two are 19 years old, one is 18 and the other is 17 − were charged with a hate crime, Higgins said.

“The only people in the small stretch were dressed in religious attire and the teenagers had no reason to be in the area,” Higgins said.

Steve Lieberman covers government, breaking news, courts, police, and investigations. Reach him at [email protected]. Twitter: @lohudlegal.

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