Is it really cute when our littlest people play pretend with our deadliest weapons?
My three-year-old son spent an hour playing at our neighbors’ house last week. They have three kids, pets and toys just like we do at our house.
When he came home, the kids had given him a toy gun. Our kids swap scooters, balls and frisbees, so at first, it seemed like no big deal.
The gun was made entirely of matte black plastic. It wasn’t a wild west cowboy type of gun and it wasn’t an old-fashioned hunting rifle. It had a shoulder strap and closely resembled an AR-15 assault rifle. Sure, there was a small piece of orange plastic at the tip indicating that it was a toy, but at a glance, it was a very realistic facsimile of a deadly weapon.
Instead of bullets though, this gun had flashy LED lights, so when the trigger was pulled, it sprayed bright red and blue dots across the victim. The sound effect was the same bullet splashing sound that has been used in toy guns for decades.
After years of cultivating an environment of kindness and imaginative play in our house, it was jarring to see my son marching around, firing point blank at me, his sister, his dad, our dog, his toys, a shoe, the window, a potato. I was surprised at how much I hated it.
Facetiously, I wished that when offered the gun, my son had replied, “Thank you so much, but my family prefers toys that promote brain development and creative play instead of violence and gore. Furthermore, we prefer not to buy cheap plastic toys made in China that will inevitably end in a landfill.”
Instead, he shouldered the strap and took up arms, as if he was a born assassin. When I’ve tried teaching him how to use scissors, his fingers seem weak and uncoordinated. But when his chubby knuckles pull the trigger of this gun, his hands seem tough and fearless.
Without a TV in our house or older cousins to teach him about video games, my son’s exposure to guns and violence is limited. Once at the movie theater, he saw some kids slamming quarters into the arcade version of Big Buck Hunter. At the beach last summer, some of our friends had those tiny bright colored squirt guns the kids were all drinking out of. But that’s about it.
In a way, this makes his behavior even scarier. If he was copying people he had seen in shows and movies, I would understand it. But if that’s not the case, is there some underlying genetic message, deep within his DNA that gives him the confidence and desire to have and hold this gun?
The gun didn’t last long. When he fell asleep that night — gun next to his bedside table — I took it and hid it. When he woke up and asked about it, I lied, something I hate to do as a parent, and told him it was broken. He’s asked about it several times since, but we’ve been busy and he now has new Christmas toys to distract him.
I don’t want to be the preachy parent who has a strict “No Toy Guns” rule in our house. But at the same time, after watching my son’s demeanor change in those few hours, I don’t want any more toy guns in our house.
We’re not overprotective parents who are dead set on keeping our kids sheltered far away from reality. My daughter listens to the real version of Lizzo songs and last week, my husband let my son tumble off the edge of the ski trail so he would know what it felt like.
Hopefully, these are the types of experiences help them navigate safely through childhood. I have talked with my daughter about swearing and how certain words have a time and a place. My son isn’t afraid of falling down now that he’s seen how easy it is to get back up.
But it’s tough to see how having toy guns in our house will benefit them later in life. At best, toy guns would occupy them for a while so I could get the laundry done. At worst, playing with guns normalizes the sounds and sights of guns and makes mock shootings a part of their play repertoire, like playing store and farmer.
Maybe I’m being too sensitive. Maybe toy guns are just another part of growing up. My son has a pretend chef’s knife for chopping velcro vegetables, but I don’t worry about him pretending to stab people with it.
But here’s the thing. I’m a teacher, working in an era of school shootings. I have a window in my classroom that looks down on the main entrance to my school. When I see an unfamiliar car pull in or a stranger walking towards the door, I can’t help but look for signs they might have a weapon.
My students and I have been instructed on how to defend ourselves against an intruder by throwing books, chairs or anything we can grab at them so they can’t get as many shots off before police arrive.
As a result, I don’t think guns are fun or funny, whether toy or real. In fact, I’m scared of them.
So why aren’t toy guns part of the conversation? While the debate about real gun control rages on in congress and at the dinner table, our kids are playing under the table with guns so real some people can’t even tell they’re toys. A quick search on Amazon reveals a dozens of pages of realistic looking handguns, rifles and shotguns, many for less than fifteen bucks.
Do kids have an unalienable right to play with toy guns? I don’t think so. If they do, maybe we can make them work a little harder for it. When I was growing up, my brother would peruse the forest floor, looking for the perfect ‘gunstick.’ A few years later, our uncle got us kits to make wooden gun-shaped rubber band shooters.
Somehow these forays into childhood weaponry seem harmless and cute, compared to the intense, intimidating fake weapons of today.
So for now, our house will be one that’s toy gun free. My kids will be stuck playing with firetrucks and a wooden workbench with ‘real’ tools. Unless they want to scour the woods for a gun shaped twig. I guess I’ll let that one fly.
And will I let my son go to my neighbors’ house again? Probably. Maybe they will give him another gun. And then I can take that one away as well.
Somebody’s got to get serious about getting these toy guns off the streets.