Fully Equipped?

Students bringing action figure guns and ROTC drill rifles to school have been suspended due to states’ zero-tolerance policies on firearms and look-alike firearms. how have these policies impacted the use of rifles in the color guard activity? Not much.

Photo by Ken Martinson/Marching.com

Three drill rifles in Marie Morrow’s car led to 10 days of suspension in February 2009. Her car was parked in the Cherokee Trail High School’s parking lot in Aurora, Colo. Morrow, a high school senior at the time, was planning on using the replica rifles to prepare with the Douglas County Young Marines for a drill competition. But Colorado state’s zero-tolerance policy for guns and “facsimile”—or look-alike—guns on school grounds drew attention to her rifles and led to punishment.

Even a toy plastic gun, small enough to fit in a Lego man’s hand, almost got fourth grader Patrick Timoney suspended when he brought it to his Staten Island, N.Y., school just last month. In Oregon this past January, 8-year-old Austin Anderson was suspended for bringing a toy gun for an action figure to school.

Several states like Colorado, Florida and Texas have forms of zero-tolerance policies that date back to the mid-90s. The rules are designed to keep schools safe, especially after incidents like Columbine in 1999.

But what do the zero-tolerance policies mean for color guards? Well, most school districts, like the Lakeview School District in Minnesota, have made exceptions for guard equipment. And some states have revised the zero-tolerance policy to add discretion.

In the Clear

Interestingly, despite the fuss about Morrow’s drill rifles, winter guards in Colorado have continued to operate without a hiccup. “We haven’t heard a peep [about the state’s look-alike gun policy],” says Gary Arrasmith, one of Rampart High School’s band directors. In fact, Rampart High School’s winter guard in Colorado Springs, Colo., was spinning its way to the top when Morrow was in trouble. Rampart’s Scholastic A winter guard placed second in the 2009 WGI Denver Regionals.

Arrasmith believes that the color guard rifles don’t look as realistic as the ROTC rifles, which could explain why his guard has not faced any problems. “They’re usually white, and they don’t look anything like the real thing,” he says.

Luckily, color guard members have been in the clear. “To date WGI has not received a single report of school districts restricting the use of simulated weapons for our events,” says Ron Nankervis, WGI executive director.

If school districts did ban the rifles, he says that he hopes school administrations would see the historical importance of using the weaponry because of color guard’s military roots.

Historical Roots

Originally, military personnel with rifles would stand on either side of the American flag to protect it in battle. The flag was helpful in positioning troops and intimidating enemies. Slowly, a more artistic art form branched off the color guard. After WWI, Veterans of Foreign Wars started forming marching bands with color guards. At first, the flags were held in waist holsters, but eventually, members moved the flags and tossed the rifles and sabers.

While the use of the American flag in winter guard shows has faded by group preference, many groups continue using the traditional rifles and sabers.

The rifles are especially appealing to the Southridge High School winter guard in Beaverton, Ore., because they’re harder to master, says Angela Caceres, director of dance and guard. Not only does Caceres like the advanced equipment, but she notes the rifles’ background as a reason to allow the weaponry. “I just think the whole idea of banning a rifle and a saber is silly because of where this activity came from,” she says. “I mean, they’re not going to ban the football team from using a football.”

Alternative Equipment

While most schools can still use rifles, some color guard equipment manufacturers are developing alternative products that look less like weapons. Band Shoppe released the Air Blade, a curved structure with holes for grasping, in 2008.

“Really the concept started with the fact that we were looking to be innovative and creative and take a traditional product and maybe modernize it more,” says Linda Seib, sales manager of Band Shoppe.

The Air Blade did not come about to specifically avoid using weapon lookalikes, but it offers an alternative to the traditional equipment. The Band Shoppe is seeing an increase in the blade’s sales, partly because it’s durable. “It’s like having that black dress in your closet; you need that piece that you can always rely on,” Seib says.

The Milaca (Minn.) High School color guard has abandoned traditional weaponry and completely switched over to the Air Blade. “We focus on parade performance in Minnesota; we do some pretty complex drill on the street, and we deal with wind a lot,” says director Andrew Nelson. “The simple fact that the blade has holes in it compared to a solid rifle makes it less affected by the wind, and to us that was very appealing.”

Like Band Shoppe, Director’s Showcase International has produced new, alternative products. Director’s Showcase worked with a color guard to develop the sickle rifle. The guard was traveling internationally and needed a rifle that did not resemble a weapon, so it could pass through international security, says Jeff Dyson, Internet marketing director. Although the sickle rifle is the same weight as a traditional rifle, it spins differently, Dyson says.

But that’s not the only thing guard members must consider before using sickle rifles. In WGI competition, these rifles are not legal pieces of equipment that count toward your required equipment time, says Bart Woodley, marketing manager. But, they can still be used on the floor and count toward performance time as long as one legal piece is being used. Likewise, the WGI Color Guard Steering Committee decided that the Air Blade was not legal.

Woodley explains that the WGI advisory board limits what is legal to protect the sport of the arts. “Without ties to the legal pieces of equipment, our activity loses its meaning,” he says.

David Duffy, one of the directors of West Johnston High School in Benson, N.C., agrees that the scope of legal equipment should be limited in some manner. “Too many things being legal is too much; our activity will become too diverse,” he says. “People will start spinning laser beams and stuff like that.”

But Duffy also sees the benefit of using alternative weapons. Throughout the past several years, the band has used or designed several rifles to fit the theme of a particular show. For example, it created a “space gun” for its “Martian Chronicles” show in 2007 and used a home-made “arrow rifle” to resemble the hands of a clock for its 2004 A Class winter guard show called “It’s About Time.” Since then, West Johnston has had several reincarnations of the prop anytime it wants arrow imagery. These include its 2008 fall show and last year’s indoor percussion program, Duffy says.

Still Spinning

Although some guards are using more alternative equipment pieces, like PVC pipes decorated in electrical tape, many enjoy the traditional rifle. “I think overall everyone would be fairly upset [if rifles were banned] because the area has been growing in color guard for about five years,” Caceres says about the Oregon area. “All the directors of the circuit would probably meet and discuss how we would solve the problem. Whether it would be taking it out of the school district and saying, ‘OK we’re doing this as an Independent color guard.’”

Luckily, Caceres’ guard has not encountered any problems despite the fact that the school’s town, Beaverton, adopted a ban on replica guns in public places in 2007. “It hasn’t been brought up, and I have not heard any discussion of that in the circuit with other guard instructors,” Caceres says.

So for Southridge and most other color guards, practice will continue as usual. Guard members will arrive to practice, warm up, run chunks of the show and clean their performance, with rifles in hand.

About the Author

Sabrina Lochner, a senior at Syracuse University, is an editorial intern for Halftime Magazine. She is majoring in magazine journalism and political science and minoring in architecture. She currently serves the Syracuse University Marching Band as head drum major and has served as the band’s associate drum major for two years. She has played the clarinet since fifth grade and is a sister of Tau Beta Sigma, National Honorary Band Sorority.