The last thing I anticipated doing this past weekend when my family and I set out to buy a couple of summer outfits for our kids was growling at another child and obsessing over toy guns. A boy, not much older than six, calmly walked over to my three-and-a-half year old daughter, Heidrun, and pointed his toy sawed-off shotgun at her chest. He made a gunshot noise with his mouth and pretended to be knocked back a bit. She only looked up at him when he pointed the gun again, this time at her face. That’s when protective Bear-Dad was awakened.
“Don’t point your gun at my daughter”.
I didn’t raise my voice, however, there was enough intensity in it to suck the air out of a basketball. The boy looked up, shocked, like I had knocked him out of a trance. He calmly put the gun down on the shelf and ran away down an aisle presumably to find his parents. My wife looked at me sideways. Like she wasn’t sure if what I did was awesome or ridiculous. I began defending myself. I quickly became a mess of arms and hands. Wildly gesticulating as exclamatory points shot out like adrenaline-fuelled bullets. It was as if I was a grown-up on a skateboard going down a hill for the first time.
My kids, like all kids, have wild imaginations. They each take turns playing the monster and the princess. They die numerous deaths, spend lots of time “in jail” and take great joy in destroying Lego villages each and everyday. Within their group of friends there is a playful logic. It dictates a set of rules outlining the parameters of the game. Namely, no one is the monster or gets tormented too long before trading characters. There is a balance of power among the children. If there ceases to be balance someone eventually starts crying until one of the tribe relinquish power or it gets redistributed through parental intervention.
But out there in the wilds of the store there were no rules, no even playing field; just a kid with a toy gun on a mission. I initially clocked him coolly walking towards her, toy binoculars hanging down dangling beneath the toy gun cradled in his arms. At first I thought he just wanted the truck she was playing with. When he carried on past her I thought maybe he was playing war games with a friend or checking the perimeter for imaginary bad guys. I thought maybe he’d even try and befriend Heidrun, kind of break the ice by showing her his weapon of choice. Instead he pretended to let daylight in through her chest.
I’ve never had an issue with toy guns. I’m not about to profess that this kid is going to turn into a mass murderer. But seeing him pointing his toy sawed-off shotgun at Heidrun shocked me into seeing this form of play through an entirely different lens. Toy guns gained popularity during the heyday of televised westerns. They were props kids used to help transform themselves into their matinee idols. People like Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassady. Their toy guns even had western sounding names like “pony”, “pioneer” and “cowboy”. For me it was the Lone Ranger. I had his silver Colt .45 and would pretend Tonto and I were ridding the world of imaginary bad guys trying to infiltrate our backyard. Interesting to remember the Lone Ranger never shot to kill but rather to disarm his adversaries.
It’s hard to take anyone brandishing a water gun – even the gigantic air-pressurized super soaker cannons – as a serious threat with their outlandish cartoon colours and science fiction inspired designs. Fun and harmless play are built into their design. But the proliferation of the Airsoft brand of realistic handguns, Uzi’s, AK-47s and sniper rifles indicate a disturbing trend. Our society is devolving into a masochistic war game culture built on individual dominance over others. Are the days gone where parents ingrain in their kid the understanding that you do not point one of these things directly at another kid? – water guns being the exception. Instead, now children are out there modeling this fantasy of safely playing war.
I don’t believe toy guns make kids more violent but I have to believe running around with replica sawed-offs and pretending to blow people away not only desensitizes but also trivializes the reality of what it is we’re playing at. How do these hobbies translate to those from the Central African Republic or the Ukraine or Syria who grow up with real bullets, real bombs, and have to normalize real terror? I believe there is a pervasive sadness in our culture derived by encouraging kids to be aggressive in their pursuit of power. There is something grotesque about using realistic toy guns to manipulate a kid’s imagination into thinking its cool and fantastic to eliminate a friend or stranger with a single kill shot through the forehead.
Toy guns are not going anywhere. So let’s try and be a bit more mindful about what we’re actually playing at and conscious of what truths that might reveal about ourselves.