Random shooting is a crime, police say Mark Anderson says he was taking his dog out for a walk one Sunday afternoon when he was the victim of a random act of violence.

Well, sort of. The 44-year-old construction worker was hit in the face with a paintball in front of his East Central City home March 1."I thought I was shot with a gun," Anderson said. "I put my hand to my face and it was covered with red stuff I thought was blood. Then I went running in the house to call 911, thinking I was shot."

A calm dispatcher, however, asked Anderson if he might not have been hit with a paintball. Neighbors had been calling police saying a group of kids were driving in the area shooting a paintball gun.

"I looked in the mirror and, lo and behold, there was just paint all over my face," Anderson said.

Paintball shootings might be considered fun and games by pranksters. But not by police, who take paintball assaults very seriously.

In Anderson's case, police arrested the alleged culprits. An 18-year-old East Central City man was charged in 3rd District Court last week with second-degree felony aggravated assault and nine counts of third-degree felony aggravated assault.

Under the Utah serious youth offender law, a 17-year-old Rose Park boy and a 16-year-old west Salt Lake boy were also charged with the same felonies, said deputy district attorney Lana Taylor. A juvenile court judge will decide whether the two minors should be tried as adults.

Two girls, ages 16 and 18, who were in the car at the time of the shootings were witnesses to the assaults and were not charged, said Salt Lake police detective Steve Wooldridge.

The second-degree felony, which carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison, stems from a Feb. 19 incident in which Alex Rosander Smith, 15, East Central City, was hit with a paintball in the left eye while in-line skating in a church parking lot at 1260 S. 1000 East.

According to a police report, Smith, an East High sophomore, told police two young men got out of a car and started firing paint balls at him. One of the young men shot pink paintballs into Smith's left eye and back as he tried to flee.

Smith suffered severe blunt trauma injury to the eye, which "created a high risk that Smith would lose his eye," according to court documents. Smith has lost partial vision to the left eye and will require surgery, Wooldridge said.

None of the March 1 victims was injured as severely. Anderson was hit in the jaw bone, about 3 inches from the eye, and eight others reported painful red welts on various parts of their bodies.

But prosecutors still filed third-degree felony charges, each punishable by up to five years in prison, for each of those assaults.

Wooldridge justifies the charges, saying the air-powered devices used to shoot the standard 0.68 caliber paintballs should be considered dangerous weapons when used inappropriately.

"When you're shooting at someone who's agreeing to allow themselves to be shot by a paintball, that's not a crime," Wooldridge said. "However, when you're doing a random shooting at people who don't want to be victims of these paintballs, then it is a crime."

There is at least one national precedent for the charges. In Los Angeles, three teens entered guilty or no contest pleas in 1996 to criminal charges stemming from a spree of attacks in which victims were shot with paintballs and hit with a bat while another friend videotaped the attacks.

Jake Young, manager of Paintball Planet in Sandy, one of several paintball recreational courts along the Wasatch Front, worries about the reputation such mindless use of the devices gives the "sport."

"The real serious players don't want to give paintball a bad name," he said.

Unfortunately, the guns used in the sport, which can shoot the gumball-size, semiliquid ammunition at speeds of more than 300 feet per second, can be dangerous when used without the proper safety equipment.

According to an Internet site that sells "the most advanced paintball guns in production," there are several styles. They range from small "paint pistols," powered by little 12-gram carbon-dioxide cartridges that require changing after 15 to 25 shots, to riflelike guns with larger air tanks and paintball storage boxes. Prices range from $200 to $1,000.

"Even at maximum elevation a paintgun can only lob a paintball about 60 yards in the outdoor models to 60 feet for some indoor units," the Internet information states. "Paintballs won't hit hard enough to cause an injury as long as proper safety gear is worn and procedures are followed, like in any intensive sport."

At the least, Paintball Planet tournament players must wear face shields that protect the eyes and ears, Young said. He also recommends chest vests and neck guards.

Even the paintball guns Salt Lake police confiscated from the arrested teens have safety warnings printed on the sides, including the fact that careless misuse can cause serious injury or death, Wooldridge said.

"The fact that the victims did not have the safety equipment generally advised by paintball manufacturers . . . that certainly could contribute to the potential for serious bodily injury," he said. "It also scared a lot of people who thought they were being shot at by gang members."

Unfortunately for the perpetrators, one of the victims was an off-duty probation officer who got the car license plate and followed it until police officer Hilary Gordon stopped the driver. Gordon found a paintball gun underneath the passenger seat of the car, which was driven by a 16-year-old boy.

Although random paintball shootings are relatively rare (Wooldridge says it's been more than a year since he arrested someone for misusing a paintball gun), eye injuries caused by paintball guns are on a relative increase.

Two Utahns have been legally blinded due to paintball injuries since the gadgets became popular in the mid '90s. A 14-year-old lost his sight in May 1996 and a 22-year-old was blinded in August 1997, said Dr. Brian Davis, medical director of the Utah Eye Injury Registry.