‘Paintball wars’ started by local rapper a problem for Atlanta police

An Atlanta rapper credited with starting a social media campaign to discourage gun violence – by encouraging paintball guns instead – is now being blamed for a nationwide wave of paintball gun shootings.

Three weeks ago, rapper 21 Savage publicly stepped up to pay for the funeral of 3-year-old T'Rhigi Diggs, a DeKalb County boy who was killed by a stray bullet as he slept in the back of his mother's SUV. Police determined that the boy was caught in the cross hairs of a "paintball war" taking place at a nearby gas station. He was shot when a teenager who had been paintball-splattered by pranksters tried to retaliate with a real gun.

Paintball wars are becoming more and more common in cities across the country, according to a story posted Wednesday in USA Today, and in some cases, the paintball wars have ended with real bullets.

Atlanta police have responded to 34 paintball-related incidents this year, with a particular uptick in April, said Stephanie Brown, a spokeswoman for the Atlanta Police Department. Brown said most of these incidents have involved groups of people targeting each other as part of a game. At least one innocent person has been hit by a paintball, and private property has been struck as well.

Paintball guns use pressurized air to shoot paint-filled gel capsules at up to 300 feet per second, or just over 200 miles per hour. At this speed, the pellets can do damage to property and cause injuries. However, some people — like Christopher Cullins, the middle school student accused of shooting 3-year-old T’Rhigi — have been responding to attacks with real violence. Besides T’Rhigi, one other death in North Carolina has been linked to the trend.

The rash of paintball attacks started in late March, around the same time 21 Savage, whose real name is Shayaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, began posting videos to YouTube and social media that depicted him driving around to various Atlanta neighborhoods and spraying cars using a paintball gun. The campaign, which has gained traction under the mantra “paintballs up, guns down,” was initially intended to curb gun violence by encouraging people to shoot paintballs instead of bullets.

Police are saying the campaign is backfiring, though. People all over the country have responded to the rapper’s call to action by targeting cars, homes and public buildings for splattering, as well as organizing “wars” in the streets, which have occasionally hit bystanders.

“We do not consider this a game and have been taking it very seriously,” Brown said. “There are venues suitable for playing appropriate paintball games. We will not tolerate this activity in public areas and we stand ready to make arrests when needed.

In early April, police broke up a paintball war on the 900 block of Washington Place, arresting four people and confiscating nine paintball guns and more than 7,500 rounds of ammunition. Brown said firing a paintball gun within the city limits violates a city ordinance, and those caught could face charges ranging from reckless conduct to terroristic threats. She would not say how many arrests have been made in Atlanta related to paintball.

Ryan Richmond and Ty Hubbard, owners of Xtreme Paintball in Conyers, said the only place a paintball gun can be appropriately used is in a controlled environment. The two owners said they have very specific safety regulations players must follow to prevent serious injuries.

For example, Richmond and Hubbard require players to wear face masks at all times and place protective barrel socks on the end of their guns whenever they’re not in the field of play. They must also allow a player from an opposing team the opportunity to surrender if they’re within 10 feet, rather than shooting the person at point-blank range.

“Paintball is definitely not meant to be used in a residential environment,” Richmond said. “We urge anyone if they want to do this, call us.”

Around the country, other cities have been having their own problems. According to USA Today, police in Detroit organized a specialized patrol force after receiving more than 95 paintball-related complaints in a single week. In Charlotte, North Carolina, where police have received more than 150 complaints this year, the television station WSOC-TV reported the mother of a two-year-old girl who was shot nine times by paintballers has started taking her daughter to see a therapist. The girl reportedly developed a fear of going outside following the shooting.

In North Carolina, police say another apparent paintball war claimed the life of 19-year-old Zyquarius Shalom Quadre Bradley of Greensboro, who was found with two gunshot wounds next to his paintball-splattered car. Greensboro police had confiscated paintball guns from Bradley about an hour before he was killed on April 20, local news sources said. No one has been arrested in connection with his death.

Abraham-Joseph or 21 Savage, who grew up in Decatur, is himself no stranger to gun violence. He has discussed publicly being barred in seventh grade from attending any school in the DeKalb County School District after he brought a gun to school, intending to use it on another student. His younger brother was killed in a shooting, and in 2013, he was shot six times during an attempted robbery that killed his best friend. He’s told media outlets the experience of getting shot is what motivated him to begin his hip-hop career, and has publicly advocated for a universal gun ban.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reached out to 21 Savage’s press representative for comment, but did not receive an answer.

While a handful of other hip-hop artists have joined 21 Savage in his campaign, some aren’t so on board. Atlanta rapper Ralo posted a video to social media warning potential vandals, “don’t come to my apartment and shoot no paintball gun.”

Who is 21 Savage?

Shayaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, better known as 21 Savage, is a 25-year-old rapper and hip-hop artist from Atlanta. He grew up in Decatur, where he attended school until the 7th grade, when he was expelled from all DeKalb County schools for bringing a gun to school. He takes his name from a group of friends he developed at South Gwinnett High School who called themselves the “21” gang. He launched his rap career in 2013.

What does he think about gun violence?

21 Savage’s best friend and younger brother were each killed in separate shootings. In the shooting that killed his friend, the rapper himself was shot six times, including once in the neck. He’s publicly advocated for a universal gun ban, and said in a 2016 interview with the music magazine The Fader, “That’s the easiest and simplest way to solve it. To take everybody’s guns, not just the civilians. Take the police’s guns too.”

Why did he start the “paintball wars”?

21 Savage is credited with starting the social media challenge, “Paintballs up, guns down,” to curb gun violence by encouraging people to use paintball guns instead of real ones. In the wake of the rapper’s call to action, hundreds of paintball-related vandalism and assaults, as well as two homicides, have taken place all around the country.

Ask the experts: How dangerous are paintball guns?

We asked Ty Hubbard and Ryan Richmond, the owners of Xtreme Paintball in Conyers, about paintball safety.

How much force can a paintball gun shoot with?

Most guns shoot at a rate of 270-280 feet per second, or a little less than 200 miles per hour. Hubbard said if a player brings his or her own gun to the field, it will be inspected to ensure it fires within the correct range of force.

A gun can be modified to shoot with more force than that standard, though Hubbard said the average person probably wouldn’t know how to do that. Some paintball guns, he said, can shoot in rapid-fire, automatic or semiautomatic bursts.

Can paintball guns cause injury?

“Oh yes,” Hubbard said. The greatest risk of injury is to the eyes—an eye shot can cause blindness, which is why the owners at Xtreme Paintball require players to wear face masks at all times. Being hit by a paintball on an area of the body not covered by protective gear can also cause pain and bruising. If paintballs are kept for too long or stored improperly, Hubbard said they can become rubbery, which can cause a more painful impact.

What do they think of the “Paintballs up, guns down” movement?

Hubbard and Richmond said they were “devastated” to hear about paintball guns being used improperly. They opened their field, they said, so that people would have a place to play safely. “My heart does go out to the little boy,” Richmond said, referring to T’Rhigi Diggs, the three-year-old who was killed when a teenager responded with real gunfire to pranksters who shot him with a paintball gun.