"The most wasted of all days is one without laughter." ~e e cummings

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Slippery Slope to Gun Ownership

On a beautiful spring afternoon, almost nine years ago, I settled my fussy newborn into his already well-worn stroller. My first baby was what they called a “highly sensitive” newborn: colicky, needy, and a terrible sleeper. My baby’s only true contentment could be found while nursing or strolling. Because I could only have a baby attached to my boob so many times a day, we walked. A lot. Our several-times-daily walks around our neighborhood were my brief interludes of peace. My chance to breathe and mentally prepare myself for the next round of Calm the Anxious Infant.

I fastened his five-point harness and tucked his flannel blanket around his teeny, tiny feet and he immediately calmed in a seemingly Pavlovian response to this well-known routine. As we set out on our walk, I waved to the little girls next door, happily doodling with chalk on their driveway. The sound of a basketball being dribbled came from across the street. A dog barked. My baby, quiet at last, gazed contentedly up at the perfectly clear blue sky.

We hadn’t gone far when the typical, happy noises of our safe and quiet neighborhood full of children faded from my awareness and I noticed a disturbing scene ahead of us: Two girls were on their knees in a neighbor’s yard, their hands behind their heads. Boys were standing on either sides of the girls, jabbing black assault rifles into the girls’ ribs and calling to another group of kids across the street. The other group ran out from behind the house, immediately producing shiny black weapons of their own and aiming them at the girls on their knees, yelling orders and commands at one another. Finally, the girls’ apparent cohorts emerged from the side yard, guns in the air in surrender.

The entire group of kids met in the yard where the “hostages” were on their knees. The girls got up and were handed back their guns. There was some quiet debate about what would happen next and then, as a group, they ran together to the backyard, out of view. It was then that I realized I had stopped walking to watch them. My baby started to fuss.

As I continued on with our walk, I tried to make sense of what I had just seen. Those had surely been toy guns. Right? I recognized the kids and knew their parents. They were good kids. Of course they were toys. It was just a game. They were just a bunch of kids, playing cooperatively and happily together. No one was being hurt, and yet…

They were play-acting a hostage situation. With guns. Guns that looked Very Real. And it was happening in front yards spanning both sides of the street, which feels very much like public property to a person walking down the street pushing a baby in a stroller. It bothered me. A lot.

That night, after finally getting the baby to sleep, I wrote an email to my neighbors. In it, I described what I had seen, expressed my discomfort with what I had seen despite the fact that I realized it was all just a game, and I asked that, in the future, any play involving toy guns happen inside or in backyards, where it does not have to be seen by me or my getting-bigger-and-more-impressionable-everyday baby.

I knew I was being sensitive. Perhaps overly sensitive. I don’t like guns and never have. Maybe it’s because I’m the daughter of a former police officer. Maybe it’s because I watched Scott Scanlon kill himself on 90210 when I was only 12 or watched the real-life television coverage of Columbine from my college dorm room. Maybe it’s because just weeks earlier the horror of the Virginia Tech massacre unfolded as I held my brand-new baby in my hospital bed, waiting for my OB and his pediatrician to sign the discharge papers and send us home....Home, in this dangerous and scary world where children point realistic looking plastic guns into their friends chests (and sometimes those guns are real and it’s not a game and people children die).

I knew I was being sensitive. What I didn’t know was that I would be called naive by my neighbors who would laugh condescendingly and said, “Oh, honey. You’ll see. Just wait until yours gets a little older. He’s a boy and boys love guns and before you know it, your own son will have an AirSoft arsenal in his bedroom.”

And you know what? They were right. Almost.

My baby grew up. He’s almost nine now and he Loves Guns. He loves law enforcement and the military and history and he can tell you just about anything you’d ever want to know about weapons and warfare and military strategy.

Despite our careful gun-free child-rearing, despite our ban on all things projectile, gun play, somehow, appeared. It started when he was little and he turned sticks and Duplos and fingers into guns, pointed them into the air and, in his teeny, tiny toddler voice shouted, “Pew! Pew! Pew!” Where had he learned that? His dad and I had certainly never modeled gun play. We, as you might imagine, were careful about which television shows he watched. Is “gun culture” truly innate?

As he got older, our ban on guns in our home continued. There were no water guns, no Nerf guns, and certainly no AirSoft pellet rifles. We were visiting friends when our son was about five. Their kids had a couple of Nerf guns in the garage and my son’s eyes lit up. “Can I?” he asked. “Can we?” the other kids chorused. “Sure,” said my friend, “just don’t point them at each other!” She looked at me, “Is that okay?” It wasn’t, really, but I decided to conduct a little social experiment on my son. Surely he wouldn’t remain interested in such play when I had given him so many other examples of constructive and imaginative play in his five short years!

Oh, but he was. His eyes lit up like he had found Truth after years of searching. He laughed maniacally as he ran around with the other kids, firing those brightly colored darts at targets around the yard. The look in his eyes frightened me. He had tasted the forbidden fruit and it was sweet.

It was in that moment that I wondered if our ban on guns was actually doing more harm than good. We did some research. We found that play involving weapons (including guns) is a common part of developmental play. In fact, researchers have found that children who engage in aggressive play actually demonstrate less aggressive behavior in a classroom setting. We found that there is not a statistical link between gun-play as a child and aggressive behavior as an adult. And then, we let our standards slide, just a little. 

His first toy gun was a Boba Fett blaster (complete with lights and sounds! Every parent’s dream!). He bought it with the “souvenir money” his grandparents had given him before our trip to Disney World. They gave it to him on one condition: “Don’t spend this on the first thing you see. Save it for something you will really, truly enjoy.” And he did.

After that, he saved his own money until he had enough to buy a Nerf gun. “I know you don’t like guns, Mom,” he argued, as if pleading his case before a judge and jury, “but this is my money that I’ve worked hard to save and I should get to choose how to spend it.” He had a point. And that slope of moral standards I had been standing on so righteously was growing more slippery still.

Finally, last Christmas, we slid all the way down. We gave our not-so-little boy and his not-so-much younger brother matching mini-Nerf guns. As they headed down to the basement with their new weapons, my husband said, “Aim for the chest and lower.” I tossed them some goggles from the toy workbench in the playroom and said, “Wear these. And play fairly.”

So my neighbors were right about a few things. My baby did grow up and he does love guns. But, contrary to their beliefs, he will never have realistic looking AirSoft rifles in his room. Ever. As my views on gun play have evolved over the course of my parenthood, a few rules remain true:

  1. We don’t point toy guns (or sticks, Duplos, or fingers) at people or animals, with the Nerf Exception: If using Nerf darts, you can blast them towards each other’s bodies (not their faces) if you both have a Nerf gun, you both agree to the game, and you’re wearing goggles or sunglasses.
  2. We only play with toy guns in the house or in the backyard.
  3. We ask a friend’s permission (or their parents’ permission) before playing games involving weapons.
  4. We will only ever own or play with toy guns that are brightly colored. We will not use toy guns that look real. No exceptions.
  5. Nerf darts are okay, but any other projectile fired by a gun (BBs, pellets, etc.) are strictly off limits. Oh, and that new Nerf gun that fires balls at nearly 70 mph? Um, yeah, no.

Lesson Learned:
Once we relaxed our Gun Ban and welcomed them (conditionally) into our home, we noticed that the alarming, fiery look in my son's eye when he first got his hands on a Nerf gun was gone. He's still a walking, talking weapons encyclopedia and he still uses his Boba Fett blaster or Nerf guns regularly, but he'd just as happily play with his Legos or pick up a book. Believe it or not, that's just fine with me.


  1. Very difficult subject. Moreso in the US than here, I imagine, because of your disproportionate death-by-gun figures.

    We have a less formal set of rules in our house. They all run around during the summer peppering each other with Nerf darts and losing them into neighbours' gardens. We have a very strict no-guns policy in the house, even finger guns, and they know it is totally unacceptable to point a weapon at another person (even finger guns).

    Time will tell if this turns them into gun-toting crazy people in the future. We lack a culture of gun-worship on this side of the Atlantic, though, so I'm confident that I needn't worry too much on that front.

    I vividly remember the time, in the supermarket, when a random child pointed a toy gun at my child. It was all I could do to hold myself back from tackling the little terrorist to the ground and disarming him with vigour. The scene remains terrifying in my memory.

    The hostage scene you describe sounds horrific, as do stories I read about lockdown drills in American primary schools. It's stories like that, combined with the US's rather mediaeval approach to healthcare funding that mean that I have loved every visit to your fine country, but I would never want to live there.

    Er... I seem to be drifting a little.

    In a nutshell, your household gun policy seems sensible to me. Go you.

    1. Go on and drift, ETF, I agree with you! The problems we're facing as a country seem almost insurmountable. The next President to take office has quite a To-Do list to tackle. If a certain candidate continues his unlikely rise, I may call on you to help us do some house hunting on your side of the pond!!

    2. I don't think you'll be alone should that happen. Drop us a line if it comes to it :)

    3. I don't think you'll be alone should that happen. Drop us a line if it comes to it :)

  2. A familiar story - and our boys are now 29 and 26. We had a ban on guns (even though I had grown up around guns and my family are hunters). So we had no guns at all in the house. Until we moved to Tennessee. Land of Davy Crockett. Every little boy in our new neighborhood had a "play" Bowie knife and a Davy Crockett gun. Our boys sat on the front porch looking sad - and lonely. I caved completely - and went to Target the next day to buy them their guns. And then ended up making little buckskin fringed Davy Crockett outfits for all the little boys in the neighborhood. You are right - they no longer looked at guns as the forbidden fruit, but instead as just another toy. As adults the have a respect for real guns - the oldest owns a rifle (a Christmas gift a few years ago from my pheasant hunting father) which he keeps carefully locked up, and uses for skeet shooting on occasion. The youngest - well he is a Marine officer candidate. Again with an absolute knowledge of the value of life and the danger of weapons, and the knowledge of how to use one when necessary.
    So Sarah - I do understand your uncertainty and I believe every Mom of boys will relate.

    1. Thanks for sharing you family's experience, Barb! I just want my kids to grow up to be gentle and compassionate, respectful members of society. Sounds like your are! Evan would love to meet your son who is a Marine! Thanks for reading.