I Just Bought My Son a Toy Gun

My Facebook friends say this may have been a mistake.

Over the weekend, I purchased a gun for my son while on a family getaway to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania’s NRA-friendly, conservative epicenter. The gun in question holds six rounds and is of the single-action revolver variety. It has a four-inch barrel. It’s rather hard to cock back, and you’ve gotta really squeeze the trigger to get it to fire. Oh, and it’s made by Nerf. I bought it on sale at CVS for $10.99.

OK, to be fair, my son is the one who made the purchase. Since January, when he turned six—the “minimum suggested age” for the entry-level Nerf gun as stated in the Toys ‘R’ Us catalog that his school, for whatever reason, sent home with him last Christmas and that he reads as devotedly as he does his most compelling editions of Captain Underpants—he’s been asking for a Nerf gun and earning money slowly but surely to buy one. The Vortex Disk Launchers were out of the question, as they have a higher minimum age and also a projectile speed that is about one-and-a-half times that of the single-action Nerf revolver, which, it’s worth noting, the company refers to as a “Blaster” not a “Gun.”

Allowing him to have a gun was not the easiest decision in the world. It seems that since he was able to walk and talk, he was also able to make the international symbol for gun with his hand. Last year in preschool, he was repeatedly reprimanded for “gunning” the other kids with his hand-gun. “I’m gunning you,” he would say as he raised his hand, aimed and fired. Boys will be boys, yes. But in a city and world where the nightly newscasts feature a hefty dose of gun violence, there’s something unsettling about this behavior in a way that probably wasn’t so unsettling back in the days of Will Rogers and a good ol’ game of cops and robbers.

We were able to squelch the gunning behavior and turn him into a more responsible, humane gunner. If it didn’t move, he could gun it. So while human beings, animals and moving cars were out of the question (the latter of which was necessarily driven by a human being), trees, signposts and parked cars were all fair game. There was also the one annoying neighbor’s annoying dog that used to annoyingly relieve himself on our property that found itself a permissible target of said gunning for a time, but that period expired. Unfortunately, the dog has not.

So we or he bought the gun, and he’s been shooting the suction cupped projectiles at our parked car, the TV screen and windows every day since without incident. Last night, I asked my Facebook friends if any of them had a “no toy gun” rule in their household. Frankly, I expected to get a whole lot of “boys will be boys” responses. But that’s not what happened.

Here’s a sampling of the messages I received:

Keith: I have two boys, fifteen and five. And toy guns other than water guns have NEVER been allowed as part of them growing up in my home. … I will never budge on this subject and my reasons are cemented in my life growing up AND the reality of this important fact that is more true than false: There is yet to be a good story I have heard, telling a positive tale about gun ownership. This is also coming from a former United States Army Airborne Ranger, light infantry and weapons specialist…me;-)

David: No guns in my house – not even the finger pointing versions. I do allow the kids to use water pistols at my brother’s house in his pool. I grew up with cap guns but figured my two little ones could play the iPad instead… I just don’t really want my kids idolizing the gun.

Rebecca: I *HAD* that policy. Til I had a son. Then, like girls with barbies and the idiotic disney princesses, i realized it was a losing battle. A battle against nature, almost. So, I caved, but I still insist on calling squirt guns blasters. I won’t buy toy guns, but he fashions them out of legos, sticks, popsicles. Sometimes those I’ll call poppers.

Diana: We do not have toy guns in our house. We do get them occasionally as gifts, but they get “disappeared” pretty quickly. I have explained to the kids why i don’t like guns, even toy guns. … I don’t think kids can tell the difference between shooting a toy gun and shooting a real gun… There is way too much glorifying guns and gun-shooting heroes (thanks Hollywood!).

But I also heard from one friend who is both a father and a licensed gun owner:

Rich: My Mom was rabidly anti-gun and super-liberal however she let my brother and I play with toy guns, army men and anything that wouldn’t cause us immediate harm if played with unsupervised. … I continued the tradition of not limiting their toy options except on the grounds of hazard, expense or just plain stupidity. I would only buy so many of those electronic pets that you were supposed to “raise” by pressing buttons every 5 minutes. Their formative years were spent in South Philly and the presence of cops and an actual mob hit around the corner from us made the lethality of guns very real.

When I moved them out to Lancaster, some of the kids’ parents had hunting trophies on the walls. The traditional Lancaster was still an influence out there so the attitude there was straight out of the movie Shane. A gun is a tool just like anything else and needs to be handled with knowledge and caution like any other potentially dangerous tool. My kids were part of a tight group of friends in their neighborhood that still looks out for one another. It’s nice. While they did play outside a lot, the only gun related play was within video games.

The experience is different because we had to imagine the consequences of gunfire in the 70’s. My kids were playing Halo, blowing other kids’ heads off with rocket launchers. Also, when I was a kid, we imagined ourselves part of something larger than ourselves fighting and dying for a righteous cause. Now, kids are concerned with their individual stats and rank. My son knows about my guns but I have yet to take him to the range. I plan on it this summer. My daughter probably won’t want to go and that’s fine, I’m not going to force it. I don’t know if my son will have the inclination or temperament to want to carry. That’s fine. That’s what Liberty is about.

Oh one final note. You shouldn’t worry if your kid plays with toy guns, you should worry if he kills small animals.

And since I don’t believe in simply crowd-sourcing all of my parenting advice, I also reached out to an expert in the field of child psychology, Leslie Rescorla, director of Bryn Mawr College’s Child Study Institute and professor of psychology at that school. Rescorla has raised two boys, each of whom has his own boy, making her the proud grandmother of a one- and five-year-old.

“Boys just love toy trucks and trains and guns,” acknowledges Rescorla. “They’re more interested in dinosaurs and violent animals. They’re more aggressive, more interested in injury and vulnerability and aggression. It’s hard to know exactly why, but it seems to be fairly instinctive, that they’re just born that way.”

Affirming what many of us would say is just obvious common sense, true, but she also offers advice on how to make the gun play more constructive: “Try having him shoot the gun at a target with different point values assigned to the various regions,” suggests Rescorla. “And turn it into a counting exercise. Or use it as an opportunity to teach him about weapons in history, about the Trojan War, about castles and knights. Just don’t let him point the gun at other children. Or dogs.”