In Defense of the Toy Gun
BY ANNETTE MCLEOD
PHOTO COURTESY OF PIXABAY
Dec 12, 2017
“Partly hunting instinct and partly media conditioning, I’d say,” my 51-year-old brother texted back when I asked him why little boys like guns so much. (And yes, I’m well aware that little girls might like guns too, but I am surrounded by young boys and old young boys — you write what you know, right?) “Video games, cartoons — guns are everywhere.”
When I asked my partner the same question, he responded that with cap guns it was “all about the big bang.”
“A block of wood, a clothes pin and an elastic band was about the fun of a projectile,” he said. “We played with airplanes for the same reason; part of the enjoyment was just physics. When I was seven, you could go to the store and buy matches and lighter fluid, which, with four pop cans and a tennis ball, we could turn into a pretty decent cannon.” Even if their parents hadn’t “allowed” them to play with guns, in other words, they were going to find a way.
And my eight-year-old son Callum’s response? “Kids like to feel older,” he said simply.
Whether it was a phaser on Star Trek or a phalanx of happy-hunting Stormtroopers who fire a zillion rounds and never hit a thing, I was exposed to all manner of guns from an early age. For Callum, it’s laser tag and first-person shooters, but the pretend-deadly effects are the same.
I have always looked at toy guns as an extension of fantasy. I see little distinction between the holstered six-shooters my dad played with and the blasting of spiders and zombies in Minecraft. Do I forbid my son to attend a friend’s birthday party because it’s at Laser Quest? Or rather use it to open a dialogue? If I try to tell him that a Nerf gun is somehow inherently different from a laser gun, all he’s likely to learn is that grown-ups are a bunch of inexplicable hypocrites.
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Callum, sadly, is growing up in a world where people — kids his age in classrooms like his even — are shot in terrifying numbers with soul-wounding frequency for the crime of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I don't believe he'd be any better off in a bubble. He needs to know how cruel people can be, even if it breaks my heart to teach him, he has to learn.
What I can give him is context. Some understanding that guns have a place, but that human life, all of it, is worthy of respect; he also needs to know the difference between respect and fear, which is all that can be had for the cost of a pistol. He needs to know that it’s OK to hunt for food if some primal part of him longs to, but that it’s not OK to blow away an elephant in the name of self-indulgent blood lust. He needs to reconcile the dichotomies of modern life.
Guns, like swimming pools and chemistry experiments, require active parenting. I would never hand over a toy gun and shoo him into the yard to play with some other armed buddies. We talk about it, I observe their play for a while, and only then does he get to run around free to explore his imagination. He may discover that those newly encountered aliens from Planet Zorg don’t respond to diplomatic solutions. If that happens, I want him to be ready.