I’m saying no to guns

I’m saying no to guns January 2, 2013

Until recently, I have had a pretty laid back policy with regard to toy guns.  I didn’t actively seek out any military style play for my children, but when they wanted a wooden musket from Colonial Williamsburg or a police costume with handcuffs and a gun, I didn’t object.  My mother bought marshmallow shooters one Christmas (a big pain, in the end, because they shoot marshmallows everywhere!).  Nerf guns are popular in our circle of boys, and we’ve had several in our house, though they usually jam up enough to be frustrating and quickly tossed aside.  The only gun toy with real staying power turned out to be a laser tag set.

I grew up with Photon — it was the coolest thing ever to have a laser tag at home in a huge house — so I was happy for my kids to spend time in a dark basement playing laser tag, it seemed, in it’s own way, like good clean fun.  Plus, my boys need all the help they can get when it comes to cool playdate activity, because we don’t have video games.

I thought it was sort of lame, and perhaps a little bit dated, to be the type of parent who didn’t allow any toy guns. Besides, it seems pointless to ban guns when I noticed that my boys made guns out of anything, from duplos to their fingers, and mostly math linking cubes.  We couldn’t even get through a Saxon lesson that involved linking cubes because they were all so distracted by building them into guns.

Then, about a week ago, a boy jumped into the living room with a rebel yell and opened fire right behind my ear.  The chuck-chuck-chuck of the laser gun aimed at his twin sister made me jump and then burst into tears.

Shaken, I had the children put the laser guns away in the hall closet and then sat them down and explained that we would not have any more gun play in our household.  I told them about Newtown, about the fact that a sick, terrible person had really done what my son was doing in play, had opened fire on rooms full of innocent teachers and children.  Something in that moment made me realize that there was nothing funny about pretending to shoot your sister.

Today, I had another very upsetting encounter with a toy gun.  My family was in a small shopping center in upstate New York passing time while our car was serviced at Sears.  While we were walking from the bathrooms back to a play area, a young man with many piercings walked by us, aimed a laser tag gun at each of the children and fired, with the same noisy chuck-chuck-chuck.  My 4 year old was very scared.  My older daughter stared after him and noticed that he was firing at all of the children – and only the children – who walked past.

It takes a sociopathic edge to think that it is funny to walk around a mall and terrify small children.  I’m not saying that this man’s next move is to open fire on the public, but if he did you wouldn’t hear his neighbors on TV saying “I never would have guessed it, he was just the sweetest boy.”  He is in the process of desensitizing himself to violence, or even worse, training himself to enjoy the power he feels from the fear in a little boy’s eyes.  Where does it go from here?

Other families have made reasonable rules about playing with guns – don’t aim at faces, for example, or only pretend to shoot those who are playing the game, or guns only in role play situations like Star Wars, or only for target practice.  These all seem like appropriate rules, but I’m scared of guns, they upset me, and I don’t want the trauma of gun violence to be a game in my house.  There are plenty of other healthy ways to get that testosterone out – my boys wrestle, they race, they throw snowballs and try to seize control of the snow fort, but they don’t shoot at people.  Period.


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  • This was so helpful and heartening, Mary Alice. I feel the same way. My younger brothers were always playing with guns when I was growing up, and I never thought much about it except a passing annoyance at always being their target. But as a mother of boys today, I feel strongly that I need to help them learn that violence – even “play” violence – is not a way to live in our world and certainly not the way of Christ. I have no illusions that this will be easy, but I feel even more convicted about this after the horror of Sandy Hook (and all the other recent mass shootings). I simply can’t ignore the desensitization to violence that so much of our media promotes. So thank you for this.

  • MA, I’m sorry that you had such a disturbing experience with your children in the mall yesterday – that would have shaken me to the core! We were sitting in a movie theater the other night and there was a man dressed in baggy clothes, sitting all by himself towards the back, looking around in a shifty sort of way. I found myself panicking that he was carrying a gun, and that he might open fire at any moment. I hate that it has come to this -the fear that any crazy person could have a gun and use it to kill. I’m not usually a worrier and tend to assume the best about others, but recent events have made this harder!
    I don’t know what to do about gun play. Since I have only one boy, it hasn’t been much of an issue yet. However, we do live in the land of guns and hunting, so guns are talked about often.
    I have a post in mind about Newtown that I’ll write at some point, dealing with many of the same issues. Thanks for sharing with us this morning.

  • Kellie “Red”

    I’m wondering why you didn’t actually do or say anything about that man in the mall. If I was feeling bold, I would have said something to him. More likely though, I would have actively sought out a security guard to confront the man. What if the next time he brings a real gun and nobody said anything this time.

    As for gun play, I think it is pretty extreme to not allow any guns. I realize that for certain dispositions, this may be the only way. But I think like many children’s things, kids need to learn that guns are not bad, but people can be. I think we need to resist the temptation to sanitize children’s books and play (I just read that many books are now removing Santa Claus’ pipe because smoking is bad). Sometimes, it is necessary, but we must be careful. I think this is particularly important for our boys, and we mothers tend to over sanitize boy play — without much thought as to what our husbands think or how these choices can accumulate over time and impact a developing boy who longs for adventure and danger. What if eliminating gun play will make your children much less likely to serve in the armed forces? or be a real hero someday? I’m not saying it can, but that it might. We often think these choices don’t really have any consequences, but collectively, over time, decisions can impact our boys and move them in a direction that isn’t ideal.

    I struggle very much with fear about these sorts of things. After Newton I am heartbroken and very jumpy in public places. But I need to be very careful not to let MY fear rub off too much on my children. I am afraid, but that must be dealt with in prayer.

    I think it is important to talk to your children about real guns and what that means. I did that with my kids. The result was my boys wanting more than ever to play with guns and take out the bad guys.

  • Brynne

    I come from a hunting family and my husband really enjoys sporting clays. I’m nudging him toward hunting as well since it’s not my favorite way to spend time and I’d like my kids to at least learn to hunt. I am a crack shot, however, and I’m thankful to have grown up with that experience. I even considered training for biathlon back in college when I was fit and lived in a snowy climate. When my kids see their dad responsibly using guns, of course they want to emulate him. Yes, they shoot at each other with nerf guns, but we have the rule that they only shoot at a kid who is also holding a nerf and never in the room with the baby. We’ve had them for years now and they have not shot at me or their little sister even once. When we’re teaching them nerf safety along with real gun safety, they understand the difference between their toys and real guns completely and end up following the toy gun rules more because they understand what real guns can do. Not all play behaviors are allowed with guns because real guns command respect. If my kids snuck up on me with a nerf they would be in so much trouble!

  • Bethany “B-mama”

    As I read your post, two of my boys were in battle in the family room using empty squirt guns. The line here is so tough and I agree with you on so many points. I just wonder how effective I would be at implementing a gun ban in our home and in my boys’ play with neighborhood friends outside. It is their world. I think I would be better at having regular, appropriate discussions with them about pretend play v. real life, violence in the world, etc. These types of discussions will be imperative as so much of their play revolves around battles… Good food for thought, especially for a former military family.

  • Kate L

    Hey MA, Thanks for posting this, I have been going back and forth on if I should put away the nerf guns or not. This really hit close to home for us, and I had to sit Thomas down to explain to him about Newtown etc… I wasn’t sure if he was old enough to really understand the whole thing, but as he explained to Nigel and I the other day, and pretty scary coming from a 7 year old. “Mommy and Daddy, I know the man shot himself and he was sick. and I know school is safe, but why did he have to shoot people”. I think he might be old enough to understand the difference between play and real… or maybe I am being to naive but I am going to try.

  • Tammy

    I think this is were the American family is going wrong. Why would you ban gun play and in turn the opportunity to TEACH your children the correct way to use them. Again, guns do not kill it is the person holding the gun that has no idea how to use it or respect it. Will you ban cars, bats, knives to cut food with? That would be silly because every child has to LEARN how to use such tools and how to use them correctly. Generally people walking around with a holstered gun know how to use it and are not there to kill someone. If they were they would be padded to the hilt, have a mask possibly and acting like they are there to kill. More than likely if someone like that walked into the theatre, the person you say with a holstered gun would have tried to save your life from the crazy one. Again, it is the PERSON, not the tool as anything can be used as a weapon. I am sad that families have decided to stop educating their children which only makes things worse.

  • JMB

    My only son is now 17 and I have allowed him to play with toy guns since he was little. I don’t come from a hunting family but my brothers used to play with GI Joes and guns – I guess I thought that’s what boys do. Moreover, I thought that banning guns (for a boy) is akin to the mom who bans dolls for the girls. Nature is nature and why try to control it? As he got older he and his friends started to play with Air Soft guns and have birthday parties at the place where they dress up in camo and run around shooting each other. I can’t remember what that is called. But they loved it. I also have two brothers who are Marines so this all seemed pretty normal to me. But now he’s 17 and into other stuff. He still plays Call of Duty and some other games with his friends, but by and large he is into his sports, friends and school work. I think as long as your son does other stuff other than play X BOX live than you are ok. I guess what I’m trying to say in a roundabout way is that my son is the oldest of a family of girls, and he’s been surrounded by girls his whole life. If I had made him quit playing with guns or video games with his friends, I think I would have been over powering his masculinity. My son needed to play with other boys and do what other boys do.

  • elaine hart

    Sorry, but the answer isn’t NO to guns. A gun NEVER killed anyone on it’s own. Teaching responsible “ownership” is responsible. Teaching no to guns is foolish! If we say no to guns, the only people that will have them are the bad guys…that’s WHY Newton and every other massacre going back to Columbine has happened, because the BAD guys were the only ones that had guns! And that is why you don’t hear about could have been massacres if it is averted. In addition, good guys (and gals) must go through a class to receive a Conceal and Carry permit, which includes shooting a gun at a target to make sure the person can shoot. No one with a felony charge can legally carry. As for the shopping center incident, let’s think about it for a moment. What if it HAD been a real gun? You would have been absolutely as helpless as you were when it was not a real gun, and you would have had dead children as well. I’m not saying this to be mean, but maybe thinking about what the outcome could have been without a “good” guy nearby, carrying a gun might jolt you back to reality. As it stands, you can be VERY thankful that man’s gun wasn’t real. You should have sought out security at the center, or the management company to report the behavior to have him removed from the premises.

  • regular joe

    Its one thing to teach about what happened at the Elementary school shooting, its another to ban Nerf Guns. Its a pointless symbolic response, whose purpose is to make you feel ‘at least you’ve done something’ and to relieve you of the nerve jangling associations their play causes you. This at the cost of normal masculine play. Will you ban sticks after explaining that death by a puncture wound from a rapier or dismemberment from a broadsword are terrible things? Pillows after noting that a skull caved in by a rock is no laughing matter? Boys do play violence, its called rough housing, its built in and normal. Set rules, fine, but banning makes as much sense as the school Zero Tolerance policies that expel 3rd graders for water pistols in the bizarre hope that this somehow prevents the psychotic, preplanned killer with real guns (‘excuse me sir, stop shooting those kids immediately, we have a Zero Tolerance Policy!’). The guy who shot up Sand Hook or any other mass shooter didn’t do so because he played Nerf guns as a kid, anymore than Tom Sawyer did because of a pea shooter or sling shot. I can see a more valid connection to video games and movies that show real gore and death as fun, creating a pre-packaged, attractive, desensitizing and highly realistic fantasy of a gun rampage. But the distance from a super soaker or nerf battle to mass shooting is approximately the same as that between a snowball fight or dodge ball and stoning someone to death. Don’t emasculate your boys to pay for the sins of others and your own sensitive nerves.

  • Pat

    My goodness. What very bizarre responses. The next thing people will have to worry about is getting caught in the crossfire between the good guys and the bad guys.

    We’re Canadians — we have strong gun control in our country. When we were in Washington DC in the summer, we were having coffee in the cafeteria of one of the big museums. There was a sudden loud bang somewhere in the vicinity nearby — I expect someone dropped something heavy — but the adults at the next table to ours jumped in noticeable near-panic and almost looked as if they were going to herd their small children under the table.

    The flags were at half-mast in Washington as the theatre shooting in Aurora, Colorado had happened just days before.

    It must be a terrible way to live, to be on that automatic shooting-alert at all times.

  • Mary

    I think there’s several conversations going on here that are masquerading as the same thing, and getting the issues confused. First- should a mom and dad ban gun play for their children? Second- what is the connection, if any, to the Newton shooting? And third- the issue of gun control. These issues are not the same things.

    I’m not a mom (give me two weeks, give or take), but imaginative play for children is so important. Girls, by and large, like to pretend to be moms and princesses (feminine) and boys often like to pretend to be soldiers, knights, heroes, etc. In this context , they are often working out what it means to be a good man- to go after the bad guy, to rescue people, even if this is subconscious on not always a part of the story. This mimicking is necessary. But only in, I suspect, the context of a larger moral framework provided by other things, like family and faith.

    If a parent doesn’t see this develop, but only a cruelty, well, banning gun play at home is probably a good step, but I would also suspect there is something else to be addressed in the way that child understands the world that can’t be wholly attributed to rough housing. This I suspect is the connection to Newton– not the gun play itself, but the gun play as a tool of assessment for a child’s development. (I’m aware that I’m oversimplifying things here… Sometimes play is really just play. But I think my point still stands.)

    These two things are entirely different from real life debates about legal gun control and what that should look like in this country. i think one could argue that it’s ok for boys to play cowboys and indians and argue for stricter gun control and remain entirely logically consistant. Mary Alice’s post wasn’t about gun control, though, so I won’t contribute to what I see as the faulty logic of brining that debate into this one.

  • AMDG

    Dear MA: Thank you for posting your honest reaction and how you have chosen to handle this within your home. As always, I appreciate hearing yours (and the other builders’) thoughts. I grew up with a father who was raised on a farm and his family hunted for their food. We lived in suburbia but he continued to hunt and donated the meat to a group called “Hunters for the Hungry” which used it to feed many in need. He taught me to respect guns, he taught me that they can hurt people even unintentionally, and he taught me that you never kill what you won’t use. That being said, we have never allowed our son to play with guns of any sort because, as you mentioned, we do not want him to associate guns with play and for him to become desensitized to their power. You might like to read what Meg Meeker, a pediatrician and author, has written on the topic. I’m including the link to her response about Newton (http://www.megmeekermd.com/2012/12/newtown-what-can-we-do/) but she also wrote: Boys Should Be Boys: 7 Secrets to Raising Healthy Sons. She sites great research and makes some excellent points.

  • I want my boys (and girls) to see that a strong man protects his family by being morally upright, by working hard to ensure that they are materially provided for, by loving his wife and children and being willing to change a diaper and cook a meal here and there. A strong male need not be violent or aggressive. Pa Ingalls wasn’t violent, but he had an important job, as his family’s protector, he had to brave the elements, know how to make his own furniture, and use a gun to hunt and for protection. My husband protects his family with his advanced degree. He teaches his sons (and daughters) that when they are feeling charged up they can go for a long bike ride or a run to work through some of those hormones before coming home to hit the books. If we lived in an area where coyotes were a threat to our livestock, he might teach them to use a gun, but on our cul-de-sac, the only predator is mosquitoes.

    If a gun is a tool (either for hunting, law enforcement, military use or self defense), I think that the Montessorian response would be to begin to develop the skills for using that tool (some sort of target practice, perhaps, and safety training using a small, real gun, even a nerf gun in that case). This is what we do with other tools (such as knives). My children do have play knives in the play kitchen, and they also use real knives in our real kitchen. If the game became “pretend to violently stab this stuffed animal to death” I would have a talk with the child, and probably remove the play knives until I saw that they were ready to use them in an appropriate way. We do not live in a rural area, and we do not hunt, so at the moment I don’t believe that guns are tools that my children (boys or girls) need to learn to use, though gun safety should be taught to all children, in case they ever some how come across an unattended gun. My son goes to an archery range and learns to shoot there, and I don’t have a problem with that, it is a skill and it is being taught and practiced in an appropriate setting.

    On the other hand, when the gun is part of imaginitive play, however, it is a different issue. My children have lots of other ways to work out issues of good guys and bad guys, and I think that they will still play lots of cops and robbers without guns (they can be British cops?). A big thing in our house is to play fireman and tow truck, so they are rescuing people that way all the time. Perhaps it was due to bad parenting earlier on, but our toy guns weren’t being used in positive role play, they were used to open assault style fire on a roomful of people.

    I do think that as a mother, and a member of a household, I have a right to say “that game upsets me, you can’t do that in my house” without overly stifling my children. I don’t need to ban pillow fights because at the moment I am not having nightmares about people clobbering other people to death or smothering. I did have to turn off the sound track to Annie this morning because honestly, as a nursing mother, when that little girl sings “Maybe” I just start to cry and then I am a bit weepy all day. I know it’s sensitive, but actually at least one of my children says that he agrees with me, Annie is too depressing. I also can’t watch movies in which people get hit by cars. So, the other day I learned that I can’t be around toys that make assault weapon noises. I don’t think that it will harm my children to be sensitive about this, actually I think it was a really important conversation that we had — I explained to them that watching them shoot at one another reminded me too much of those children being shot, that gun violence is very real and sad, and they totally understood.

    I agree with those who said that I should have gone to mall security about that young man who had the toy gun, but to be honest it didn’t even occur to me. The only thing I was doing, in that moment, was gathering up and counting my children and trying to calm my four year old. On other occasions I have been a big whistle blower and I encourage my kids to do the same. The New York City Subway has lots of posters that say “if you see something, say something.” When I worked with college students, on one occasion I did alert the dean about a student whose behavior had become so erratic that I thought he might be a threat (to himself more than others). I do think that we all need to try to help.

  • Anita

    We’ve never allowed guns in our home. (My husband is even stronger on this than I am.) We have two sons age 15 and 8. (And 2 girls as well.) We also do not allow first-person shooter video games either. Neither of our sons is deprived of outlets for their masculinity and learning how to be a good man. The idea that guns are a necessary part of learning to be a good man is ludicrous. We do have play swords and light sabers and such. They play sports and are in Scouts. Guns are different from swords, etc. You don’t have to get close to a person to kill them with a gun. You have to be pretty close to kill with a sword, you probably have to look in their face while you do it, and you will feel it. My dh’s family are big hunters and that’s fine with us, too. My brothers-in-law all have conceal and carry permits and are armed most of the time. They feel safer that way. Again, not a problem for us. There is a constitutional right to be armed, and I that’s fine. I don’t think that should be changed. We have a nephew who placed third in the nation in clay shooting. We are not afraid of guns or unfamiliar with them.
    However, the only thing you can play with a gun is killing. From what you and your commenters describe your kids are pretending to kill people. (Is that pro-life?) It is not okay to pretend to kill people. It’s a power-trip. We need fewer people on power-trips, not more. I think you saw that in the young man at the mall. I applaud you and I hope you stick to your guns (pun intended.) We’ve done it for 15 years, it’s not always easy and we often have to explain again to our sons our reasons why. God bless you.

  • I’ve thought the same thing about violent video games as well. Pretending to shoot kids is wrong.

  • Elizabeth

    I think reactions to both play and real guns can be informed a lot by where we grew up. Having grown up in the city, I never knew the “good guys”. I only associated guns with gangs. (And the military I guess, but that seemed far away.) Raising city kids now, we don’t allow gun play.
    Here, most gunfire is not by the “crazy people”. It’s by the “bad guys”. But they’re not after us. They’re after the other “bad guys”. We call police when we hear gunfire.
    I absolutely want to encourage heroism in my children (son in particular), but I don’t see how gun play necessarily encourages this. When the only examples of guns immediately visible to us are negative, I don’t think the play would have much good to emulate.

  • Kellie “Red”

    I agree that providing for your family is a key part of masculinity. But so is protection.

    Like it or not, aggressivenes is a masculine trait. Our society works very hard to drive that out of young boys, rather than teaching them how to harness it, and use it when needed. Men are sometimes called to physical action — much to the discomfort of women. In our current culture, many men are taught that these physical or aggressive impulses are wrong. That is a shame. They are not wrong, but need to be properly directed. Of course pretending to shoot up a room full of people is not ok, and there is nothing wrong with some basic rules about that. But the last time my son came in machine gunning down a group of pretend people, he was pretending to be a part of military special forces and was taking out the enemy to save the world from disaster.

    Our children need to know that their fathers not only provide for and help educate the family, but that they are responsible for protecting the family from harm. When you think of a coward, you NEVER think of a woman. You think of a man who is not brave in the face of physical danger, who will not sacrifice his body for others. This is a very real part of masculinity, and unfortunately, it is very much lost in today’s society. Today, men work in very clean white collar jobs, and their sons are very likely to consider making money as the thing that makes a good Dad. That is only part of the picture. And since we both have husbands who don’t get to show this protector part of their role very often (neither are PA Ingalls!!!), I think it is really important that boys know this is a part of who they are as boys (and someday men), and they are given the opportunity to role play about these sorts of brave and even aggressive behaviors. While this can be done with wrestling, swords, forts, and even their arms, for many boys in our culture it will also be acted out with guns. Of course this play needs to be positively directed from the parents (I would not allow my daughter to kill her dolls in a cruel way, or have them dress sexually!), but I would never take away the dolls unless her play with them was so misused and she was not obeying my requests to play in a more positive manner. I think guns should be looked upon in the same way.

    There is a reason that our military is primarily comprised of people from areas where guns and old fashioned boy play is permitted and even encouraged. I know in our house, we do not need more influences encouraging our boys to grow up to be doctors or lawyers. They see that every day with their father.

  • Love this part of Kellie’s comment:

    “What if eliminating gun play will make your children much less likely to serve in the armed forces? or be a real hero someday?”

  • Mary Alice, my husband has an advanced degree AND joined the military. So, he protects my family… and yours.

    Your original post feels a little like “as for me and my house, I’ll let other people do the hard work of learning how to use guns and protect our nation.” there’s so much more out there than coyotes….