"You'll shoot your eye out!" It's a phrase that parents -- and fans of A Christmas Story -- know well. And it's a risk that has kept the attention of federal and health care authorities for years -- given that 3.2 million people purchase air rifles each year and 10 million participate in paintball games. But a new federal brief on ER visits shows a fairly dramatic decline in these types of injuries.



ER treatment related to air rifles or paintball guns declined 20 percent from 2006 to 2008 -- and treatment related just to paintball injuries declined 48 percent, according to the federal report.

Parents call Darrin Johnson daily, asking about the risks of letting their kids play at his Splat Tag paintball facility in Hudson, Wisc. It's the element of a firearm -- even one pumping out soft, paint-filled pellets -- that fuels their worries, he acknowledged. "I'm more worried about somebody tripping and hitting their head on a tree than I am about an injury from a paint gun."



Children 17 and under remain most at risk, and accounted for 58 percent of the ER visits in 2008, according to the federal report. A disproportionate 25 percent of ER visits were by uninsured patients and 33 percent were Medicaid recipients. Kids must be wearing their goggles, because only 4 percent of the visits were related to eye injuries. Most were due to open wounds on the arms, legs, face or neck. (I can attest to the paintball risk a little bit. Some 15 years ago, an unexploded paintball pellet hit the side of my neck, causing a welt that I still remember. No ER visit needed, though.) 

Air rifles are the primary culprit, accounting for 97 percent of the ER visits. But interestingly, 12 percent of ER visits for paintball injuries resulted in hospital admissions compared to only 3 percent of air rifle injuries. (There was no data specific to the Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model. Sorry Ralphie.)

Johnson said the decline in paintball injuries, specifically, doesn't seem to be due to declining interest. His facility hosts 8,000 players each year. (All must wear face guards at all times until exiting the marked playing field.) He hopes the decline indicates that people using air guns or paint guns on their own and in their yards are becoming as safety conscious as organized paintball facilities. 

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