Kids and Toy Guns: Pretend Battles Rage On, Long Past Newtown


The original Star Wars Rebel Blaster

With his kids, Carter Gaddis straddles a line between regulating imaginative gun play and banning it

The kids in our neighborhood run around with their toy guns and do what kids do with toy guns. They pretend to shoot each other, or imaginary bad guys, with those toy guns. We did that with toy guns when I was a kid forever ago, and our parents never gave it a second thought.

But then, that was long before Columbine. Before Virginia Tech. Before Tucson. Before Aurora. Before Sandy Hook.

Things have changed.

Our seven-year-old son plays with the kids in the neighborhood, many of whom are around his age. It’s an important stage of growth for our first grader, his initial extended foray into unsupervised free play with friends. We’re fortunate that he can play in relative safety on a quiet street in the gated exurbs of West Central Florida. My wife and I give him the freedom to roam next door, and maybe a few houses down, as long as he lets us know where he’s going beforehand and as long as we know there’s a parent nearby.

What they like to do is play games of war. Of course they like to do that. These are boys in America. Their great-grandparents loved gangster flicks like Little Caesar and the Public Enemy and lived through World War II and Korea. Their grandparents loved Gunsmoke and lived through Vietnam. Their parents loved Star Wars and lived through two wars with Iraq, 9/11 and an ongoing war in Afghanistan.

Soldiers and police officers and Han Solo – men and women of action, bearing arms – are idolized by young boys. Even in the horrific aftermath of the Newtown shootings, even as Congress debates the merits of the latest gun control bills, the pretend battles rage in neighborhoods across the country.

This, I think, is as much a test of our ability to trust his developing judgment as it is a conflict between our views on guns

Like so many parents around the world, the tragedy in Newtown shattered my previous ambivalence about guns. Full disclosure: If the Second Amendment as interpreted by the hard-core gun-rights advocates in our country were overturned by the will of the American people, I would rejoice. And this is coming from someone who grew up in rural Eastern North Carolina, where hunting and guns were (and are) a big part of life. My maternal grandfather belonged to a hunting club, and the trophy set of 10-point deer antlers he bagged when I was a kid in the 1970s remain an enduring personal symbol of my childhood.

This isn’t only about that, though.

It’s about the conflict between my concern regarding the role of guns in our society, and my son’s socialization among his childhood peers in the neighborhood.

It’s not merely a broad political issue for us. It’s personal. It’s personal for every parent of every child who one day decides he or she wants to play with a toy gun with the neighborhood kids.

Do I want my son running around the neighborhood pretending to shoot other kids? Do I want other kids pretending to shoot my son? I do not.

Do I want my son to feel like he fits in with the other kids? Do I want him to build friendships now that might last a lifetime? Yes. Yes, I do.

And that’s the conflict.

Our solution?

We chose to spend more time outside with our son, presenting alternatives to toy gun play, such as soccer or baseball, hide and seek or kick the can.

We chose to emphasize the “pretend” part of playing with toy guns. To explain to our son that real guns pointed at real people can do real harm. That even kids his age can die if someone shoots them with a real gun.

That it has happened before, and not so long ago. We did not give him the details, because we didn’t want him to share our nightmares.


The toy

We also chose to purchase a foam dart gun. Only, instead of a “gun,” we bought him a Star Wars Rebel Trooper blaster, with foam dart capability. It’s a blaster, see. Not a gun. He’s a good guy, like Han Solo and Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia and all the Rebel troopers they fought with against Darth Vader and the Emperor. He will fire his blaster only for good, and only if Greedo shoots first. So, there’s that.

I still feel like we’re straddling some sort of untenable line between condoning the kind of play that – let’s be real here – is an imaginary re-enactment of killing with firearms, and the direction my gut says we should go, which is a firm denial of any kind of pretend gun play.

Yet, to deny our son the chance to fully immerse himself in imaginative, relatively unsupervised play with his peers also would be wrong. We’ve explained to him in no uncertain terms that real guns are not playthings, and we’ve even made him promise not to point his new blaster at anyone who wasn’t involved in the game. This, I think, is as much a test of our ability to trust his developing judgment as it is a conflict between our views on guns and the vital role of childhood play in shaping his personality in the long-term.

I don’t know if there is a clear-cut right answer for us. I just know that my parents never had to think about this issue quite this way, and I wish we didn’t. We do, though. We do, and our kids need to know that we’re thinking about it – and why.

—photo by steve_lodefink/Flickr


About Carter Gaddis

Carter Gaddis was a sports journalist for 24 years before moving into Internet marketing in 2010. He worked 16 years for the Tampa Tribune and covered major-league baseball for 10 of those years. He also covered the NFL, the NHL, NASCAR, and high school and college sports. His work was recognized for excellence by the Florida Sports Writers Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors. He was one of five Spotlight Bloggers chosen to read at the second annual Dad 2.0 Summit this year in Houston. He and his wife have two young sons, and they spend far more time at Disney World than they probably should. Carter writes and publishes the parenting blog, Dad Scribe


  1. Dan Flowers says:

    Children will automatically become obsessed with something that is forbidden. It’s the nature of kids. They should understand the reality of what happens when REAL guns are used. That part of the teaching is where it gets tricky… Imparting the gravity of the improper use of a gun transposed with how much good has resulted from the justified use of guns throughout our history. Kids should not be scared, they should be educated. My kids got their first toy guns as soon as I thought they could comprehend the safety lessons I intended to teach them. We practiced the fundamentals of safety with toy guns first. Because I wanted to accomplish this, I bought them very realistic toy guns, like a break action toy shotgun that had little plastic shells that had to be loaded. By age 4, my kids knew how to handle a gun, keep it pointed in a safe direction, how to keep fingers off triggers, how to open and check the action, etc… They were allowed to handle and play with them, but not point them at each other. They were allowed to carry their toy guns into the woods on hunts. They got to see the results (through hunting) of what guns can do and to respect that power, not fear it. They are old enough now that they are practicing self-defense with real guns, based on years of good training and a firm grip on the moral and ethical considerations involved in their use. I wish to God that people would understand that we don’t have a gun problem in the US. We have a responsibility problem.

  2. Good point and a good solution! These are things to think about and this article really helps.
    Thanks for sharing.

    Greetings Joeri

  3. First of all, I applaud you and your wife for educating your son and not just making a decision to allow or not allow guns. I have two sons and now two grandsons and boys will make guns out of their fingers if need be. I am absolutely for our right to bear arms. You can not legislate morality. Making guns illegal will not stop criminals from obtaining weapons. The answer is education. Education is not only empowerment but also prevention.

  4. I am not at all into guns, though I do appreciate that they are allowed for in our constitution.
    As you noted, it is hard to ban toy guns from our children when other kdis play with them. Also, it almost seems natural for little boys to want to play with them.
    There is only so much we parents can do to police them and it sounds like you are doing a good job of that.

  5. Just found this. Disturbing. Some kids are getting suspended for creating and playing with toy guns, Mother Jones reports.

  6. I totally agree that you need to just let your kids’ imagination roll. If that means they play with imaginary guns, then so be it. I wrote about this issue a couple of weeks ago but was reluctant to post the writing. Not sure why. I generally don’t repost my blog in comments but thought that my post ties in nicely with your post. Here it is:

    If I have breached etiquette please let me know.

  7. What if the act of play killing is their was of visualizing and experimenting with violence, and your guidance than help shape their emotional reaction to it, and how they eventually feel about guns and violence? So then the play violence could actually be a good thing. Either way, having thoughtful, involved parents is more important than the play and plaything.

    Also, we forget that the violence on TV and movies is also portrayed with melodramatic sadness when a good guy is killed. For me at least, that has a significant impact.


    • I thought of that, Mike, but couldn’t quite articulate it, so thank you. It comes down to communication and trust, ultimately. And really, we’re just fortunate that we don’t live someplace where the gun play in the neighborhood involves live ammo. Very fortunate.

  8. I understand the conflicted feelings, but I also know that kids will make a gun out of just about anything. Long before my son ever owned a toy Nerf gun, he was making them out of Legos, Tinker Toys, even out of his sandwich. As I child, I made them from sticks and whatever else I could find outside. The key is the engagement with your child about what is real and what is not – what is appropriate and what is not.

    • Excellent point, Todd. My son was actually using a metal tee ball bat before we got him the blaster. I remember using those yellow Wiffle ball bats as pretend rifles when I was a kid. It was convenient, because they could double as light sabers.


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