For the last two years, my six-year-old, Fletcher has been coveting a certain Star Wars blaster. It’s hard to tell the differences among the assorted Star Wars weaponry, but I think it’s one of the models the rebels use in the Clone Wars series. His older cousins have one, and he plays with it at their house every chance he gets. The last few times we’ve ridden the Buzz Lightyear ride at Disney World, which conveniently spills you out into the gift shop, he’s gone right for this particular weapon, touching it with the kind of reverence normally reserved for holy relics. He knows better than to ask me for it outright because the answer to his perpetual Can I have a gun? question has long been a flat No.
It’s challenging to be anti toy-gun when you’ve got a boy. The fascination must come with the Y chromosome because Fletcher’s been enthralled by toy guns since he could pull himself up and grab what he wanted to play with from a toy chest. I could refuse to supply him with toy firearms, but that doesn’t stop others from gifting him with water shooters. Or stop him from playing with toy guns at other kids’ houses. Staying with friends on a family trip to Denver when Fletcher was 3, I discovered my child had unearthed a substantial cache of toy guns that even my shocked girlfriend didn’t realize her son had.
As any parent knows, kids’ persistence is a force to behold. Over time, their repeated pleas can wear you down like water smooths a rock. And so it was that a few weeks ago, I reluctantly reversed my No Toy Guns policy and allowed Fletcher to purchase a stylized flintlock pirate pistol with his allowance. After that, the proverbial barn door was wide open. So when I saw the Star Wars blaster at Target, and it was on sale, I thought, Oh, what the hell. That’ll make his Christmas.
It was upstairs in the guest room closet with the rest of the toys, waiting to be wrapped in festive Christmas paper and tied with a bow. But after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut on Friday, I took it back. After seeing the pictures of those 20 murdered children, most of whom were exactly my son’s age, the idea of feeding my own child’s perception that guns are just big boy toys and the violence they can do is just a game made me physically ill.
And I say that as someone who’s not opposed to reasonable gun ownership. Though because the word reasonable has been so perverted by the NRA and their rabid devotees, let me explain what I mean by that. Years ago — long before Fletcher was born — when I lived off-grid on a remote mountain in Nevada, in an area where it could take 20 to 30 minutes for police to respond to a 911 call, my husband kept a 12-gauge shotgun, a .22 rifle, a 9-mm semi-automatic handgun and a HK91 assault rifle in the house. “I like to shoot things in the desert,” he said a little sheepishly when I asked him why on earth he needed a stash like that. They were his guns, and I wouldn’t touch them. But my husband traveled frequently, and I was often home alone. After an unnerving encounter with one of the other mountain residents (who I presumed was making meth in one of the lonely double-wides loosely scattered over the desert), I wanted to be able to protect myself if I absolutely had to. So I learned how to load and fire a Glock. At the time, I considered it a necessary survival skill.
Now we live in the Greater Orlando suburbs. The guns are gone, and we leave it to Orlando’s Finest to respond quickly if the need arises. No one in suburbia (or a city for that matter) needs that kind of weaponry. Ever.
On the afternoon of the Sandy Hook shooting, Lisa Belkin, the Huffington Post Parentry blogger, wrote that “guns are a parenting issue.” She said our job as parents is to keep our children safe, and “easy access to guns keeps us from doing that job.”
Of course, as many, many people have said in the wake of this horror, any real change in our nation’s gun culture has to start with petitioning our lawmakers and holding President Obama to his promise to “use whatever power [his] office holds” to pass gun control legislation that actually bans these weapons of mass slaughter. The same goes for demanding more resources to make mental health services readily accessible to those who desperately need them, and so perhaps prevent the kind of off-the-charts violence these tortured souls can commit. But closer to home, especially with Christmas approaching fast, perhaps it’s also time to think about the messages we send our children when we allow them to play with — and indeed give them — toy models that look so much like the real thing. However unintentionally, that tells our kids that that gun violence — killing — is appropriate imaginative play for children to engage in.
Telling a kid he/she can’t have toy guns isn’t easy. Believe me, I know. But tell me, what part of parenting ever is? Teaching that gun violence is abhorrent has to start somewhere, and maybe it starts with banning the plastic toys that glorify gun ownership in our households … as well as the shoot-em-up video games that I’m just as guilty of allowing my son to play from time to time.
Truth told, I’m not sure yet what I’m going to do about the super-soakers and pirate pistol we already have. Though I’m sorely tempted to do a full toy purge, I’m thinking that doing so may actually create more desire for the forbidden playthings. Better perhaps is to simply let them gather dust on the toy shelves and refuse to replace them when they break. Already, that pirate pistol has been forgotten as other toys from Chanukah have commanded my son’s attention. But this much is certain: I won’t be adding to the arsenal on Christmas. Over the weekend, I replaced the Star Wars blaster with a telescope. Rather than pretending to shoot at people and our long-suffering cats, I’m hoping it inspires my son to shoot for the stars.
Illustration: Jessica Ziegler