Sunday, April 12, 2009

Is allowing toy guns the same as playing with fire?

When I was growing up kids (in my age-group anyway) didn't play with guns. It was a mindset that most of our parents held: guns were not toys; there was nothing of value to be gained from leveling the barrel of a plastic peashooter in any direction, even at an imaginary foe.

Had we hailed from a family of hunters, maybe we'd have a different take on the subject. But no, we, and nearly everyone we knew, were doggedly anti-gun.

My assumption has always been that the war in Vietnam — which had recently ended — was the main factor behind the boycott. Too many young men our parents had known just never came home, or they'd come home so affected by the horrors they'd seen or participated in that they weren't the same people they’d been when they left.

I was quite a bit older when I first saw a child playing with a toy gun. I must admit the sight shocked me.

But then again, I was a girl — a tomboy, perhaps, but a girl all the same. The boy stuff I was interested in wasn't playing cops and robbers or war games so much as going fishing or climbing trees or catching snakes. I was all about scaling walls and getting dirty. I have come to think of it as a testament to my lack of imagination. I wasn't interested in thinking and role play as much as I was fixated on getting things done. I wanted to be the Engine Who Could. I wanted to be as high as I could get. I wanted to face fear and stare it down.

Guns didn't frighten me; they weren't even on my radar.

It didn't occur to me until much later, though, that guns were all around as I grew up. They didn't much look like the genuine article of course: just a red button on a rectangular hunk of plastic, tethered by a chord to the television screen. The explosive blasts sounded more digital than mechanical, and the targets were little men from outer space.

Few could work up much opposition to something so fanciful.

Shooting aliens, after all, would be a desired skill in the unlikely event of an interstellar invasion.

Of course, my interest in such things never lasted long; again I credit my gender. Even with the advent of Charlie's Angels, I was more interested in the caliber of their coiffs than the caliber of their side arms.

But boys will be boys.

My husband's mom was not much different in her perspective than my parents. She was another mother who forbade games depicting mortal combat. Of course she herself fell victim when her only son — unhappy with the edict — chewed his toast into the shape of a revolver and brazenly shot her over breakfast one morning.

"Where do they get this from," I recall her recollecting.

I have to admit, I had the same degree of wonderment when The Champ, a few months ago, picked up a roll of wrapping paper, aimed it at the dog and said: "Psssshoooooo!"

I shook it off. He's only 17 months old. It didn't mean what I think it means.

Then a month or so later I found him quietly stalking our furry, incontinent beast with the core of a toilet paper roll. One eye shut. BOOM!

"We don't shoot family pets," I bark and lunge for the weapon.

"No. Pshooooo?"

"No Pshooooo."

I sent out the APB: "The Champ has a gun," but I didn't bother asking where he got one.

"Bond. James Bond." Has been his dad's nightly routine for falling asleep since Santa brought him the complete boxed set. Together father and son watch car chases and explosions as I read bedtime stories about cute and fuzzy bunnies to Ittybit.

I suppose as the recent mass shooting in Binghamton settles on our psyches, we’ll be reassessing how we glorify gore.

We’ll argue for a time over whether shooting at imaginary targets in play translates into warped moral standards. We may even look to ban more of this primordial play.

We may even hear a new call for a ban, despite studies that show toy guns and violent play acting might actually have an important role in our children’s healthy development.

To me the studies makes sense. Not only do we learn through play, but it doesn’t seem as if outright bans instill knowledge as much as they reinforce fear. And looking back, I can honestly say that none of the kids I knew who played cops and robbers ever became either. Although it's possible one or two are still shooting at aliens.

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