In light of recent tragedies in Scarborough and Colorado, parents should seriously reconsider whether fake guns have a place in their kid’s toy box.
Guns have never felt less like toys than in this hot, violent summer. Real bullets have rended flesh and stopped hearts—not just in back alleys and dark parks, but at food fairs, barbecues, and movie theatres. Meanwhile, toymakers continue to pump out “play” guns of every imaginable size, shape and sound effect, from the AK47 SWAT Team Assault Rifle Machine Gun Toy with Light Scope & Shooting Sounds to the Nerf N-Strike Elite Retaliator Blaster.
Amazon.com boasts 1285 items in its “toy guns for kids” section while a trip to Toys R Us or Walmart will net you a wide range of Air Zone dart guns, super soakers, and military-inspired Nerf weaponry. Dollar stores offer an even wider selection, complete with old-school cap guns amid their cheap-o toy rifles, handguns, and sci-fi shooters.
As the parent of a two-year-old boy, toy guns are not an issue I’ve had to personally deal with yet, but it is inevitable and it is encroaching. You know how you’ll see one ant, and then suddenly notice that they’re everywhere? That’s what it’s like when you have a toddler—you’ll notice suddenly that guns are culturally inescapable, from black-and-white Lone Ranger YouTube videos to brightly coloured superhero cartoons to, sadly, blood-soaked newscasts.
The past two months have been so brazenly bullet-riddled, the Parkdale public library has installed an anti-gun display in their teen book section. But maybe we need to aim the message even younger, since so many people out there seem to be treating real guns with the gravitas of toys.
Raised by hippie parents out west, I grew up in a household where toy guns were verboten. I, of course, simply played with them at friends’ houses, or found a stick that was gun-shaped enough to use for a backyard war game or a round of cowboys and Indians. I felt my parents’ decision was arbitrary and unfair, especially when I discovered my dad had kept my confiscated water gun for use as a prop in his acting class rather than disposing of it. I just wanted to play with the other kids. It was fun.
So are toy guns really that bad? There are plenty of studies linking fake guns to real aggression, but I find them flawed—perhaps aggressive kids like to play with toy guns, as opposed to toy guns inspiring kids to act aggressively. And I’ve played videogames most of my life, including ultraviolent shooters, and am not at all a violent sort. If I decried the critics who tried to blame Columbine on Doom, why should I be so opposed to analog gunplay?
Yet the very idea of toy guns still upsets me—a feeling that increases with every shooting report from Scarborough to Aurora, Colorado—because they feed a culture that actually treats actual deadly weapons as playthings.
The anti-political correctness crowd will shout that boys-will-be-boys, even even suggesting “the next time that a child tears around the backyard ‘killing’ all the bad guys and tearing off their heads, we recommend that his or her parent smile and compliment their child’s ability to take care of the bad guys.” Canada’s own Toyland Company absurdly argues “a ban on toy guns can actually stunt children’s development and cause increased violence and rule-breaking.”
I actually have no inherent problem with violence-tinged role-play. Children see things as black and white, good and evil, and having these two forces battle it out is an innate part of being a kid trying to make sense of the world. They’re just pretending, and conflict is an intrinsic part of storytelling. My Autobots and Decepticons didn’t exactly have tea parties, my favourite comic was Secret Wars, and when we played Knights of the Round Table, somebody always got pretend-skewered.
But there’s something different about gunplay. Perhaps it’s because transforming robots and Marvel superheroes are obviously fantastical and a sword is a relic of a bygone era, thus easily differentiating the real and the imagined. Not to make light, but last weekend in Toronto there were four people shot in three separate incidents—and not a single swordfight.
My son Emile’s natural disposition is sweet. He doesn’t start fights in daycare and when he imagined that monsters were invading Pirate Forest (a.k.a. the pathway between our house and our neighbour’s), Emile’s plan of action was to hug them. But he’s still a boy. And most boys like to play with guns. He probably will, too. But not at our house.
Toy guns don’t turn kids into killers, and I’m not suggesting a ban. But not buying them is a most powerful statement. Already, the number of toy guns in major chains is less (and the designs less realistic) than when I was a kid—and hopefully a summer like this horrific one will help convince more parents that toy guns simply aren’t appropriate playthings. Maybe, one day, the whole idea of toy guns will be viewed with the same you-sold-these-to-kids?!? dropped-jaw disbelief as bubble pipes and candy cigarettes.