It was a beautiful evening and the kids—Madeline, 2; Seamus, almost 4; and Rosena, 9—were running across a well-tended town green. Seamus pointed his rainbow flag with the feather handle at his sisters and “pow-powed” them, calling out, “Yous are dead now, guys. I shot yous.”
Madeline and Rosena laughed and just kept on running, with Seamus at their heels. I hid my face in my hands. It wasn’t just that he was playing guns, but that he was using a Pride flag as his gun at a vigil to mourn those killed at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. My pacifist husband Patrick ran to redirect their activities, replacing the flag with a ball and glove and beginning a game of catch. Vigil organizers were taking turns reading the names of those killed into a microphone.
“… Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22
Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, 36
Luis S. Vielma, 22…”
Those three men and 46 others were massacred on June 12. Another 50 people were wounded. Omar Mateen, who killed them, was armed with a Sig Sauer MCX assault rifle and a Glock 17 9mm semi-automatic pistol. He bought those two weapons legally in the days leading up to the attack.
The carnage brought politicians and pundits out in force, using all the usual arguments for and against guns. Because the victims were mostly gay and mostly Latino, and because the attack was carried out by an American citizen with an ethnic last name who may have been enthralled by Islamic terrorism, or a closeted, self-hating homosexual (or both), the commentary quickly became muddled. Was it a hate crime, Islamic terrorism, or a strange double-bonus hit for the haters? Mateen was killed in a shootout with police and so can’t speak to his motives. Investigators were left to sift through the material evidence and a dizzying compilation of online comments, Facebook likes, and recollections from old coworkers, family members, and possible lovers in their search for answers.
The most essential facts are, however, not that complicated: Mateen had a license to carry a gun, training as a private security guard, and hatreds to act upon. He armed himself and he killed.
And all over the country, since that fateful day that elicited the usual cries of “never again,” the killing continues: Alton Sterling and Philando Castille, by the police; Dallas Area Rapid Transit Police Officer Brent Thompson and four Dallas Police officers, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith, Michael Krol, and Patrick Zamarripa, by a lone sniper, Micah Johnson, who himself was then killed by an armed police robot; three more police officers in Baton Rouge on July 17.
“… Montrell Jackson, 32
Matthew Gerald, 41
Brad Garafola, 45…”
And the killing continues. Using the Gun Violence Archive, I counted another 306 deaths by guns throughout the United States in the first eight days of July alone. Most of them weren’t high-profile police shootings or mass tragedies, but in a small-scale and localized way, the grief and outrage of Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas were replicated in every corner of this country, including Ticfaw, Louisiana; Woodland, California; Tabernacle, New Jersey; and Harvey, Illinois. More than 300 deaths by gun in just eight days.
“Stabbin’ My Bunny”: Teaching Kids About Guns and Violence
And then, of course, there were my kids, my husband, and those “guns.” As a boy, Patrick wasn’t allowed to play with toy guns. Instead, he, his parents, and their friends would go to the mall during the Christmas buying spree to put “Stop War Toys” stickers on Rambo and G.I. Joe action figures. When he went to his friends’ houses, he had to tell them that war toys were verboten.
I grew up in a similar family of activists. We, too, were forbidden toy guns and other war toys. My brother and I were more likely to play games like “protester at the Pentagon” than cops and robbers. I’ve been thinking recently about why toy guns didn’t have a grip on our imaginations as kids. I suspect it was because we understood—were made to understand—what the big gun of US militarism had done in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Indochina, and throughout Central America. Our dad had seen the big gun of war up close and personal. His finger—the same one he pointed at us when we were in trouble—had pulled the trigger again and again in France during World War II. He was decorated there, but had zero nostalgia for the experience. He was, in fact, deeply ashamed of the dashing figure he had once cut when home from the front. And so, Dad screwed up a new kind of courage to say no to war and violence, to killing of any kind. His knowledge of war imbued his nonviolent peace activist mission with a genuine, badass, superhero style swagger.
Our parents—our community of ragtag, countercultural Catholic peace activists—made that no-violence, no-killing, no-matter-what point again and again. In fact, my early experience of guns was the chilling fear of knowing that, in protest, my father, mother, and their friends were walking into what they called “free-fire zones” on military bases, where well-armed, well-trained soldiers were licensed to kill intruders. So we didn’t point toy guns at each other. We didn’t pow-pow with our fingers or sticks. We crossed those fingers and hoped that the people we loved would be safe.
Our inner city Baltimore neighborhood, where crack cocaine madness was just taking hold, drove that point home on a micro level. Our house was robbed at gunpoint more than once—and we had so little worth taking. We watched a man across the street bleed to death after being stabbed repeatedly in a fight over nothing. People from our house ran to help and were there for far too long before an ambulance even arrived. We knew as little kids that violence was no laughing matter, nor child’s play. It was serious business and was to be resisted.
As parents tend to do, Patrick and I are passing this tradition on to our kids, hopefully without the emotional scarring that went with our childhoods of resistance. They don’t have guns or action figures or any other toy implements of death. Still, we’ve been watching Seamus, our Team Elsa (from the Disney blockbuster Frozen) son, as he’s recently begun turning every stick into an imaginary gun. This is, of course, happening just as, in the headlines of the moment, actual guns are turning so many previously real people into statistics. Under the circumstances, how could I not find myself thinking about toy guns, real guns, the nature of play, the role of imagination, the place of parents, and how to (or whether to) police (ha!) that imaginary play?
When my stepdaughter Rosena was about four, she found a toy dagger at the playground, somehow smuggled it home, and was stabbing one of her beloved stuffed animals, a bunny, repeatedly with it.
In the other room, I could hear the thumps on the bedroom floor and called out, “What are you doing?”
“Stabbin’ my bunny. I kilt her,” she responded matter-of-factly.
Seizing a “teaching moment” and undoubtedly gripped by my own childhood experiences and memories of my parents, I blustered into the bedroom with a shoebox. “Now, your bunny is dead,” I announced in my version of over-the-top momism. “You know what happens when living things die, right? It’s forever, right? Now, we have to bury her.” Rosena and I then “buried” the doll on a high shelf in her closet. I told her that we cannot hurt or kill the things (or people) we love. I told her that, because she had “killed” that bunny, she could never play with it again.
About a week later, I slipped it back into her toy basket and, when she asked why, assured her that I thought she wouldn’t hurt her toys like that again. She agreed. I recall that episode now with a certain embarrassment, but when I recently heard Rosena explaining death and loss to her little brother and sister, I thought: Oh, maybe the drama of the shoebox burial was actually helpful in some fashion.
Toys matter. We’ve put a fair amount of thought into what might be called toy curation in our household. We’ve bought nothing new and little used. Mostly, we’ve accepted shipments of hand-me-downs from friends who just wanted “this crap” out of their houses. No guns came with them, thankfully. After all, even toy guns can mean death under the wrong circumstances.
A year ago, I visited the Cuddell Recreation Center in Cleveland with my daughter Madeline and a group of friends. That broad stretch of ball fields and paths, anchored by a gazebo and a playground, was where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was fatally shot by Officer Timothy Loehmann in November 2014. Rice, an African American, was playing with an Airsoft pellet gun that a friend’s dad had bought at Walmart. A replica of an actual Colt pistol, it shot plastic pellets and looked pretty real, since the orange tip signifying “toy” was missing. However, Officer Loehmann, investigating a report that a man was carrying a gun in the park, was moving too fast to notice much. He sped up and began shooting even before his squad car stopped moving. Rice’s hands were still reportedly in his pockets.
Though Loehmann was not indicted, the city of Cleveland paid a $6 million settlement to the Rice family and demolished the gazebo where the boy was shot. In the park that day, local activists described the shooting and its aftermath to our group. Half listening, I followed Madeline as she toddled into the playground. I tried to imagine Samaria Rice’s pain in this unremarkable place made part shrine, part soapbox by a police officer’s quick trigger finger, racism, and her son’s blood.
I thought about that toy gun in Tamir Rice’s hand and what might have been going through his head as he pointed it and played with it. Despite the age difference, it couldn’t have been that far from what regularly goes through my son’s head when he picks up a stick and points it: pop, boom, wow! The difference, of course, is that Seamus, blond and freckled and unmistakably white, would run little risk of being shot down by a policeman, even eight years from now with a replica toy gun in his hands.
Blasters, Blasters, Everywhere
Toys are a big business in this country, raking in $19.4 billion in 2015, according to the retail tracking firm NPD Group. Our family is not responsible for even a dime of this. Not surprisingly, then, my announcement that we were all going to spend a rainy afternoon at a local Toys “R” Us store came like a bolt from the blue for the kids.
I wanted to see what kind of toy weaponry was for sale there. I was curious, among other things, about whether the boys at school who had taught Seamus about superheroes, bad guys, and Star Wars had ignited in my son a love of weaponry; I was curious, that is, as to how he would react to the walls of guns I imagined Toys “R” Us displaying.
We got into our car as if it were Christmas Eve, Seamus beside himself with excitement, Madeline on a contact high from her brother. I was experiencing my own contact high, taking my kids on their first research trip.
What we found was not exactly what I expected—on many levels.
Seamus was quickly overwhelmed by the glut of everything—lots of pictures of toys on boxes, but not a lot to pick up. (It was, in that sense, the very opposite of our visits to the Goodwill store, where you can sit on the floor and play with all those second-hand toys as long as you put them back afterwards.) Not so surprisingly, in retrospect, he went straight for what was familiar, what he could grab in his hand and actually look at: the books. It took some effort to wrestle him away from Five Stories About Princesses and enlist him in my quest for bad toys. (Madeline had, by then, fallen asleep.)
I had finally found the Nerf “blasters,” but he wasn’t interested. “Let’s not go down this aisle, okay, Mom?”
I was, of course, looking for the worst of the worst when it came to weaponry, but it proved remarkably hard to find. The aisle did, admittedly, have the Nerf Zombie Strike Doominator and the Nerf Modulus Recon MKIIfor $34.99 each. Those certainly sounded grim, given the eternal war against the undead, but the bright orange, cartoonish, completely unrealistic “blasters” on display and marketed to kids “eight and up” seemed distant indeed from American gun carnage (and our wars in distant lands), nor was there anything on the packaging that even hinted at real people getting shot in real encounters or real wars. I must admit that I don’t like the idea of Seamus shooting anything at anyone—even a brain-hungry zombie—but as it turned out, I needn’t have worried, not this time around anyway. Zombie-killing wasn’t in his wheelhouse.
Still, I kept looking for the real gun aisle, and I did come across more blasters, dart shooters, and the like, none with the word “gun” on them. Of course, we do live in Connecticut, less than 100 miles from Newtown where, in 2012, Adam Lanza, a devotee of violent video games who grew up in a gun-filled house, killed 20 kids just a little older than Seamus along with six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School. So maybe our local toy outlet was being sensitive, but I doubt it. There was the Halo UNSC SMG Blaster (the initials make it sound extra tough but stand for nothing) for $19.99, and the NERF Star Wars Episode VII First Order Stormtrooper Deluxe Blaster, which fires 12 darts up to 65 feet without reloading, for $41.99. The worst thing I could find was the Xploderz Mayhem, with “more distance, more ammo,” which shoots easy-to-wash off mini-water pellets. It was on clearance for $18.89.
By then, Seamus was pulling me frantically toward the aisle with the full Frozen franchise on display. Madeline was now awake and in heaven.
So I left them there briefly and snuck off to do a last check for “real” toy guns. No such luck. I didn’t find the kind of Airsoft gun Tamir Rice was playing with when he was killed. I didn’t find an ersatz Sig Sauer either.
It turns out that most brick-and-mortar toy stores don’t seem to offer realistic-looking toy weaponry anymore, nor is there the toy store equivalent of the curtained-off area in the old neighborhood video rental shop where the porn was available. For such toys, you have to turn to an online world of websites like Kids-Army.com, where you can indeed buy realistic-looking toy rifles, shotguns, and pistols, or even to Amazon, where you can find an Airsoft version of the Sig Sauer rifle for $249.99.
“Start Them Young”
The National Rifle Association (NRA) would undoubtedly have been disappointed by my local Toys “R” Us outlet—just as its officials undoubtedly are by the way most big toy merchants seem to have left their more realistic guns for the online world. This happened, in part, in response to the sort of social pressure that my husband engaged in when in high school and—more critically—the almost routine horror of the blurred line between toy guns and real ones. You know we’re a quirky, gun-crazy nation when Cleveland could ban toy guns and umbrellas with pointy tips from the area around the Republican Convention in the name of security, but couldn’t keep out the real guns in open-carry Ohio.
The NRA wants kids to play with realistic toy guns and BB guns, since they believe that such toys are part of a child’s initiation into the future ownership of perfectly real guns. At the moment, the gun lobby is concerned that not enough people have guns—even though the 270 million to 310 million of them already amassed around this country (according to the Pew Research Center) could arm just about every man, woman, transgendered person, and child around. Still, despite the fact that Americans can now carry guns in all 50 states and the NRA continues to win most of the big political fights, the number of households with guns is actually down from its peak in the late 1960s (though those that are armed have more and deadlier weapons than ever before). No wonder the gun industry and the gun lobby are fighting to produce an army of toddlers.
“Start Them Young,” a February 2016 report from the Violence Policy Center, details how gun manufacturers and the NRA are eager to market real guns to younger and younger consumers. The report starts with a selection of quotes from the industry, including this gem from Craig Cushman, marketing director for Thompson/Center Arms, about their Hot Shot rifle for kids: “[We’re] talking about a tiny gun intended for the very youngest shooters—the ultimate first gun. We’re targeting the six- to 12-year-old range.” In other words, kids are literally in their sights.
It’s a strange world we live in. The toy industry has puffed up and candy-colored its play guns, turned up the volume on the violence online and in video games, and wrapped everything in plastic and safety warnings. At the same time, the gun industry is making its guns smaller and cuter for kids, while putting its energy into the all-important junior market.
Can we be safe—any of us—in a nation awash in guns? The gun-and-ammo industry boasted $16 billion in revenue for 2015. Gun stores—from brick-and-mortar shops to online retailers—had $3.1 billion in revenue that same year. The industry as a whole claimed responsibility for nearly $50 billion in “economic activity” in 2015 alone. That represents a fair number of jobs, but here is the number that really goes boom: $229 billion. That’s the annual cost of fatal and non-fatal gun violence in this country, according to Mother Jones and analyst Ted Miller of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, who teamed up to crunch the numbers. That figure includes both the direct costs of gun injuries and deaths—police investigations, emergency personnel, hospital bills, long-term care for the injured, funeral expenses for the dead, and the costs of prosecuting and imprisoning the perpetrators. As the report concludes: “Even before accounting for the more intangible costs of the violence… the average cost to taxpayers for a single gun homicide in America is nearly $400,000. And we pay for 32 of them every single day.”
We are awash in guns. Where does it end? Gun violence is embedded in our national mythology, our foreign policy, our notions of masculinity, our entertainment industry, and our children’s play. We see violence solving problems on every screen—from the zombie apocalypse to the rise of ISIS. Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s maxim still applies: “One should not put a loaded rifle onto the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” Sooner or later, that rifle is sure to go off. It might be an accident; it might be terrorism; it might be hate. But it will go off. Somewhere, as you read this, it’s going off right now.
I don’t want to police my kids’ imagination. And there is a whole strain of parenting literature that assures me that I don’t have to. It says don’t interfere with your kid’s play, even if it includes guns and shooting and killing. Imagination is imagination and the violence isn’t real. It might even, so this line of thinking goes, be a healthy way for them to process feelings of aggression.
I get what they’re saying, but it seems like a cop-out to me. To my mind, nonintervention is often a missed opportunity to be a parent. Sure, the violence isn’t real. The pow-pows don’t actually rip skin and tendon or stop hearts from beating, but the United States, which has been fighting distant wars nonstop for 15 years now, does have a violence problem and a man problem and a gun problem.
We know where that problem ends, but it starts somewhere, too. One place to begin to look, at least, is at how our kids—particularly our boys—play, and how they are nurtured (or not), and taught to express their emotions (or not). It is, at least in part, up to us, their parents, to decide whether they are going to be the ones who help repair our society and reorient us (or not). And it begins with the kinds of care and love they receive, the kinds of conversations they are invited into, the kinds of expectations they are given about behavior and relationships.
I don’t want to raise Seamus, Madeline, or Rosena in the austere, ripped from the headlines of horror, polemical atmosphere that was the essence of my own childhood. But I don’t want them to get comfortable with killing either.
I want so much more for, and from, my little boy than “Pow, pow, yous are dead now!” And that starts with taking the gun or the stick or the rainbow flag out of his hands, sitting him down, and having a hard conversation about what guns actually do to people—and how much killing hurts us all.