When my son was born, I vowed he would never own a toy gun.
I could not even wrap my head around the concept that pretending to shoot other people might be considered a “game.” Even water guns bothered me, so much so that for the first several years of his life, the only one he owned was shaped like a dolphin.
I rationalized—this is just a dolphin spitting water, not a GUN.
I spent my childhood in the idyllic (in my memories) 1970’s in a very rural suburban setting. We rode our bikes over all creation (unsupervised, naturally) for three seasons and then sledded down the winding bridle paths in the woods (unsupervised, naturally) all winter. We built forts and played house and sold lemonade to our good-natured neighbors. We put on plays and staged mini-carnivals and danced for hours to old records. Yes, we actually did.
What we did not do was play with guns, toy or otherwise.
Now, many of the men in our neighborhood were hunters, so there was no stigmatizing gun ownership that I was aware of; but toy guns or BB guns? Those were a medium of the “bad” kids. And every neighborhood has one (or two).
We had a small posse of BB gun toting toughs who were as stereotypically bullying as the gang in the classic film Stand By Me. When you saw them coming, you fled. No ifs, ands, or buts. Naturally all the trouble in the neighborhood was automatically blamed on them as well. When someone punctured the bottom of our kiddie pool (which we had wisely been using as a floatation device in the creek behind our house—unsupervised, of course) repeatedly with some kind of blade, those boys were GUILTY until proven GUILTY.
They were the “bad” kids! Kids who like guns are “bad” and liable to do anything! Thank God no pets turned up missing, because they would have gone down for that, proof or no.
And of course video games—which didn’t exist until my adolescence—were innocuous affairs like “Pac Man” and “Donkey Kong.” The only thing you could SHOOT at were “Space Invaders” and obviously, such an extreme event as an alien invasion would call for some fire power, right?
Shooting at people was never suggested, let alone normalized.
I don’t know when exactly guns-as-toys-for-good-kids became a standard, but I blame Nerf. Nerf, who made it possible to ignore Carol Brady’s excellent advice about never playing ball in the house, also made guns an irresistibly impotent plaything. Foam bullets! How totally fun is that!
It was Nerf that finally forced me to break my gun embargo with my son; the ubiquitous “Nerf Gun Party Culture” proved to be an irresistible force. How could I say no without A) turning my kid into that weirdo outsider and B) not look like a self-righteous, condescending ass? So we bought him a Nerf gun. And it was the slippery slope I imagined it would be. Now he has all manner of Nerf Weapons and a Super Soaker to boot.
Of course he is still not allowed to play video games where he pretends to shoot at things (most especially PEOPLE), but I do think that guns have become so normalized for children that it is difficult for them to separate reality from the fantasy. Even laser tag or paintball promote the idea that targeting other human beings is pleasurable; that the person who does this most successfully is “the winner”.
Is it any surprise that guns are so often used in our society to end arguments?
I had an interesting conversation with a teenage boy I have known peripherally for many years who I would describe as bright and a bit precocious. He went off on the topic of guns, expressing his love for them and his enjoyment of gun related activities. He also expressed his belief that gun ownership is necessary for personal safety.
Now for context, he lives in a rural/suburban setting much like the one I grew up in; apart from the occasional teen-level vandalism, crime is practically nonexistent. So I told him that if guns interested him as a hobby that’s fine by me (not really) but as a woman who lived in New York for four years and Los Angeles for nine (mostly as a single girl) I had never once been in a situation where I wished I had a gun. Not one single time.
To my surprise, he didn’t get defensive; he actually seemed intrigued by that. So I gently pointed out the lack of crime, violent or otherwise, in his immediate environment and expressed my opinion that no one living in such circumstances really needs a gun. He changed tacks and began talking about the threat ISIS presents to American citizens.
Where do you suppose he got an idea like that?
I explained to him that the TOTAL number of global citizens that have been killed in attacks by ISIS equals less than 25% of the number of people killed in gun violence in the United States EVERY YEAR. Again, his response was curious rather than defended. I asked him if he realized this means his neighbor with a temper and a gun is a far more serious threat to his well-being than ISIS ever will be?
In the past few decades research shows that more and more Americans cite “protection” as the main reason they own a gun and NRA membership has swelled. In spite of the fact that our citizenry makes up just 4.4% of the world’s population, we have 42% of the civilian-owned guns; our firearm homicide rate is 20 times higher than the combined rates of 22 countries that are our peers in wealth and population. Not to be a conspiracy theorist, but the timing of our addiction to gun ownership and the age of the Nerf gun do coincide.
We start normalizing violence for our kids. Violent video games added fuel to the fire; the media and government vilification of the violent “other” (Look over there, not here!) simply sealed the deal.
We taught our children that guns are “normal,” “necessary,” and (worst of all) FUN! Violence is normal, necessary, and fun.
And the thing about children? They grow up to be adults. With their own money and cars and belief systems…and guns.
But my conversation with that teenage boy gave me a glimmer of hope that it is not too late to turn this ship around. Talking about guns and gun violence can be uncomfortable and unpleasant, but kids need to understand the actual facts (as opposed to the alternative facts).
And kids are a lot smarter than we think; let’s give them the best chance to do better than we did.
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