Concerns about escalating violence during contentious rallies in Portland, Oregon, have been heightened by a gunfight last week between far-right demonstrators and anti-fascist counter-protesters.

The Portland Police Bureau charged a 65-year-old man from Gresham, Oregon, in connection with a gunfight in the city’s downtown on Sunday. According to authorities, Dennis Anderson drew a concealed handgun and fired at a group of anti-fascists who were attempting to remove him from the area. According to authorities, at least one of the anti-fascists fired back, with seven shots exchanged between the two sides.

Proud Boys and other far-right groups routinely open-carry handguns during protests, and the shootout fueled growing concern about the presence of firearms at rallies across the United States.

Other violent incidents in Portland on Sunday, however, demonstrated how participants have increasingly adopted less lethal, but still dangerous, technologies as political street fighting weapons.

On Sunday afternoon, approximately 200 Proud Boys and other far-right groups clashed with a smaller group of anti-fascists near an abandoned Kmart in the city’s outer north-east. The altercation devolved into a running street brawl, with participants punching each other and spraying each other with pepper spray.

On Sunday, a firework thrown by an anti-fascist exploded in the forecourt of a gas station, alarming all sides of the conflict.

Some Proud Boys, on the other hand, were carrying airsoft guns, which are replica firearms that fire compressed air pellets and are typically used in recreational combat games or combat training.

These weapons, along with paintball guns, first appeared during clashes in August 2020, when far-right brawlers used them to fire gas-propelled pellets at a much larger group of leftwing protesters. A Guardian investigation at the time revealed that participants had planned for weeks to use the devices in the most destructive way possible.

Since then, the weapons have been used at every Portland protest where far-right groups have appeared, including on August 29, 2020, when passengers in a pro-Donald Trump truck convoy fired the devices at pedestrians.

Although airsoft and paintball guns are unlikely to kill, medical researchers believe they pose a significant risk of eye, head, and other extremity injury. According to data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, there were an estimated 10,080 emergency room visits in the United States last year attributable to non-powder guns such as airsoft and paintball guns.

When used to threaten others, airsoft and paintball guns, like any other weapon, can be prosecuted. Earlier this month, a Portland resident was arrested for pointing an airsoft weapon at a journalist, in violation of a law that criminalizes the use of “dangerous or deadly weapons.” However, they are not subject to any federal or state laws, and they are not covered by firearms laws.

According to Jon Lewis, a research fellow at George Washington University’s program on extremism, the weapons’ legal status, as well as their non-lethality, have made them an appealing option for extremist groups both inside and outside the United States.

Lewis contended that the Proud Boys would continue to use the weapons in Portland and anywhere else where law enforcement had a “lax local response” to the group’s activities.

On Sunday, the absence of police during the clashes raised concerns about whether city authorities were willing or able to put an end to the violence. Chuck Lovell, the chief of the Portland Police Bureau (PPB), stated repeatedly in advance of the unpermitted rally that protesters “should not expect to see police officers standing in the middle of the crowd trying to keep people apart.”

Between 1 January 2020 and 30 July 2021, Portland saw 128 violent and/or destructive demonstrations, accounting for 31% of all demonstrations in the city during that time period. This was more than ten times the national average of 3% of demonstrations turning violent or destructive.

Portland saw 21 armed demonstrations during the same time period, accounting for about 4% of all armed demonstrations in the country at the time. Fourteen of them – or 67 percent – became violent or destructive during that time period, whereas only 16 percent of armed protests in the country as a whole did.