Will We Surrender Toy Guns?

posted on March 11, 2015

Support for gun rights has never been higher. Gun purchases continue to set new records, and crime is at historic lows. If you’re a political activist on the warpath against firearm ownership, the outlook might seem pretty bleak. 

Maybe that’s why gun control advocates are stepping up the pressure on a different kind of target: America’s children. Marketers have long understood that planting ideas into young minds is one of the best ways to foster long-term brand loyalty. By punishing normal childhood behavior and targeting beloved childhood institutions like toy guns, activists hope they can manufacture an anti-gun membership from the ground up.

One place those efforts are playing out right now is in the public school system. Rather than teaching independent thinking and imagination, or letting children utilize safe environments to explore ideas for themselves, many administrators are creating a sort-of psychological experiment by associating guns with fear, creating an unapologetic stigma that all guns are bad, period.

Of course, this represents a curious deviation from the standard policies of most schools. Whereas most “progressive” teachers and administrators insist that children will experiment with certain behaviors and must be taught things like “safe sex,” when it comes to firearms they adopt a strict “abstinence-only” approach, with harsh penalties for anyone who steps out of line.

Readers are likely familiar with the notorious case of the 7-year-old Maryland boy who was suspended from school for gnawing a breakfast pastry into a shape resembling a handgun. (The boy, who was later given a Life membership to the NRA, stated he was trying to create the shape of a mountain.)

That is the consequence of the  “zero tolerance” policy most schools have for toy or replica firearms. Supposedly designed to discourage violence or prevent shooters from escaping detection, the policies are now being used to intimidate innocent children, and have reached new extremes in recent years. A New Jersey boy was suspended and made to undergo a five-hour physical and psychological evaluation for the crime of twirling a pencil...

One school in Michigan confiscated a student’s cupcakes for being adorned with little toy army men. In New York City, a fourth grader’s toy police officer, made out of LEGO™ bricks, was confiscated due to the toy’s tiny replica service weapon. (The boy’s father is a retired officer.) A New Jersey boy was suspended and made to undergo a five-hour physical and psychological evaluation for the crime of twirling a pencil—which another student claimed was a “gun motion.” One Chicago sixth-grader turned in a nonfunctioning toy gun and was rewarded with a suspension. (Ironically, an anti-gun television ad circulated last December encouraged children to steal their parents’ real guns and turn them in to teachers  at school.)

One California elementary school actually staged a toy gun exchange. Another school in New York suspended a 16-year-old sophomore for wearing an NRA T-shirt. (The suspension was later overturned.) Others have been threatened for sketching guns, or even using a pen with the Glock logo. In at least three separate instances in 2013, elementary school boys were suspended merely for pointing fingers in the shape of a gun.

These cases aren’t isolated. They represent a growing cluster of stories emerging from America’s school systems—a result of overzealous enforcements and ignorance perpetuated by anti-gun groups’ complete demonization of firearms. 

Now, no longer content with attacking the gun cabinet, opponents are turning to the toy cabinet, staging toy gun buy-backs, municipal or state-level bans, and pint-sized prosecutions—all making public examples of any resistance.

During the height of the Christmas toy rush, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman issued cease-and-desist orders to area retailers warning against violating state law by selling realistic toy guns. 

“When toy guns are mistaken for real guns, there can be tragic consequences,” Schneiderman warned in an accompanying statement. However, the warning was based on just one finding from one store. Despite attempts by media and politicians to sensationalize the issue, no one has shown an “epidemic” of injuries or fatalities arising from toy guns, or even that they’re any more dangerous than other common toys such as balloons, tricycles or stuffed animals.

Nevertheless, New York law requires all toy guns to have orange stripes, tips or other markings to denote them as toys, and criminalizes the sale of aluminum, black, blue or silver toy guns. Violators can expect fines of anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000, and up to $8,000 for repeated offenses. From 2006 to 2013, the state seized 7,200 toy guns and charged $2.4 million in fines, including a  $500,000 fine against just one retailer.

Toy guns have been in America nearly as long as the real thing, but came to popularity after the rise of cowboy movies and TV serials. Toy companies identified a demand by children to imitate cowboy heroes like Roy Rogers, and created facsimiles that used caps or rubber bands. The accompanying values promoted on television often included nonaggression, safety, responsibility and marksmanship. In fact, a 1957 commercial featuring a costumed Clayton Moore (the Lone Ranger) promoting a Cheerios cereal revolver includes the masked man’s solemn warning: “Remember, play safe and never aim at another person!”

Unfortunately, the vintage heroes of that era gave way to graphic realism and violent portrayals in cinema, TV and video games, which still promote the desire for imitative play in children. But the muscle-bound heroes of today aren’t likely to be found in character promoting responsibility. Nor are moguls of the entertainment industry inclined to reduce the violence of their blood-sport blockbusters to decrease the odds of schoolyard duplication.

That’s not to say that parents don’t have a role in teaching their kids responsibility in this area, just as they must when youth are ready to graduate to handling real firearms. It’s never too early to ingrain good habits.  

Last year, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was fatally shot by a Cleveland police officer responding to a report of  an armed boy in a park. Three  months prior, Dayton, Ohio, officers opened fire on 22-year-old John Crawford after receiving a call that he was carrying a gun and pointing  it at fellow shoppers.

Crawford’s gun turned out to be a pellet rifle he had removed from a sales shelf inside the store. Rice’s was a bb gun with the orange safety tip removed from it.

Predictably, these incidents led to criticism against “lax” toy gun laws and calls in some states for clamp-downs on toy guns. Yet similar tragedies have resulted from police mistaking other ordinary objects—including wallets, cell phones and canes—for weapons. For the police, adequate training is a part of the equation. For people interacting with police, calm, cooperation and common sense are the key.When used appropriately, [toy guns] also provide children with harmless fun and promote imagination and exercise.

Anti-gun advocates often seize upon rare but tragic news stories, like they have in this push against toy guns. In fact, a 2013 document leaked to the public confirmed that using emotion to trump facts was literally part of the playbook. The document, titled “Preventing Gun Violence Through Effective Messaging” encourages aspiring anti-gun advocates to “always focus on emotional and value-driven arguments about gun violence, not the political food fight in Washington or wonky statistics,” and to “Use statistics to reinforce an emotional argument, not to replace it” as well  as “emphasizing emotion over  policy prescriptions.” 

Among those “wonky statistics” is the CDC’s 1995 report that there are approximately 3.2 million bb and pellet guns sold each year. Yet according to Consumer Product and Safety Commission estimates, the chance of one of those guns being associated with a fatality is just over one in a million. The CDC reports that accidental deaths or injury are far more likely from drowning, suffocation, motor vehicle accidents or falls. One study showed playground injuries are responsible for roughly 200,000 emergency room visits every year; another indicated 110,000 ER visits per year from trampoline injuries. The statistics reflect what officers themselves often conclude: There are far bigger problems to worry about. 

Replicas, toys, props, and BB or Airsoft guns all have legitimate and useful functions. Concealed carry classes, martial arts, sporting activities and law enforcement training all incorporate them in some form. BB and pellet guns can introduce safety and marksmanship. When used appropriately, they also provide children with harmless fun and promote imagination and exercise. Whether it’s a dime-store pop gun or an opportunely fashioned stick of wood, children will find a way to imitate their heroes.

The real solutions lie in responsible behavior and education, not in fear and shame. Fireworks, bicycles, amusement parks, inflatable toys, trees for climbing—every ingredient of a  child’s happy summer contains within it an element of adventure. The same is true of youthful play that involves heroics with pretend arms. Managed well, all these activities contribute to a child’s healthy growth and development and the formation of confident, capable adults.


Randy Kozuch
Randy Kozuch

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