Retailers who sell highly realistic imitation firearms say they are opposed to any new law making them look less like real guns.

The retailers have responded to a series of proposals from the Department of Justice, aimed at regulating the sale, importation and use of so-called realistic imitation firearms, or RIFs.

Popular models bought and sold here include realistic imitation MP4 machine guns, Glock or Beretta pistols and others similar to real guns used by special force units around the world.

Most of those who buy RIFs play a sport called Airsoft, a popular combat simulation sport.

The guns fire light plastic pellets at a low-power rate of under one joule - which is less than one-tenth the power of a paintball gun.

Despite their weak firepower, gardaí are concerned there are no laws governing the sale, importation or purchase of RIFs and some have been used by criminals pretending they were real firearms.

There have been 51 convictions relating to the misuse of imitation firearms since 2010 but dealers say there could be as many as 250,000 RIFS in circulation in Ireland.

RIFs are also bought and re-sold by collectors, short-range target shooters known as plinkers, and historical re-enactors.

The Irish Airsoft Business Association, whose members sell RIFs, has written a detailed response to the Department of Justice's proposals.

While it is opposed to making the guns look less realistic, the association favours the introduction of a formal register of dealers.

The introduction of the register was also mooted in the department's consultation paper, which was released last month and closes for submissions of interest tomorrow.

Speaking on RTÉ's This Week, IABA chairman Derek Talbot, who owns Main Irish Airsoft in Dublin, that the retailers had been looking for the introduction of a register of licensed dealers for a decade, since the low-powered imitation firearms were first deregulated in Ireland.

He said it was necessary to put an end to RIFs being imported and sold by "anyone and everyone".

Mr Talbot said it was known that in some cases, imitation firearms were also being sold at fairs and markets "out of the back of vans" where the firearms did not always comply with the low-power rating of less than one joule.

By far most controversial of all the options put forward by the Department is to sell only RIFs which are coloured pink or blue or some other shade, as is done in the UK, which might make them look more like toys and less realistic; in theory making them less useful to criminals.

However, Mr Talbot said the retailers and players would be against that suggestion.

He said it would do untold damage to the retailers’ business and the many facilities around the country running assault course sports.

He added that it would be a deeply unpopular move with enthusiasts, whose main interest in RIFs was because of their authentic appearance.

He also said that if the guns were painted a colour to make them resemble toys, then they would no longer comply with the existing legal definition of a RIF, which states that they must look realistic to fall under the legislation.

He said this would create a dangerous loophole in the law.

Mr Talbot also said that while painting the guns pink or blue would decimate the business, it would not do anything to prevent criminals from repainting them with black metallic aerosol paint.

Garda Brendan O'Toole was threatened with an imitation gun in 2014 when he foiled a robbery at a shop on Dublin's southside.

He said he believed he was about to be shot and it was "impossible" to tell whether an imitation firearm was real or not when it was pointed at someone in such a situation.

The industry estimates that there are around 250,000 realistic imitation firearms in ownership or use by enthusiasts in Ireland, many of whom would own multiple real-looking guns.

The IABA has asked the department for greater clarity on the issue of whether dealers should maintain details of those who buy RIFs.

Mr Talbot said there was support for the idea of registered dealers being allowed to seek ID from a buyer, and of having the discretion to refuse sale if the person failed to present valid ID.

Airsoft simulated combat games have become increasingly popular with teenagers.

Most of the players are male but there are a growing number of  women taking up the game.

It is a popular sport for corporate events, hen and stag parties and club outings, but most of the weekend games are played by club members, according to Paul Murphy who operates the Red Hills Airsoft facility outside Kildare town.