(Photo: USAG- Humphreys/Flickr)
By Sheila Hageman
How does a strict anti-gun proponent make sense if a woman straps a flashing flak vest onto her six-year-old son so he can be ready to fight? She does it with a weary smile, because she doesn’t want to be seen as silly.
Let me paint you the picture: a small, dark room filled with 25 first-graders battling for room to display their gun stances.
“Show me how you hold your guns,” the bubbly brunette woman said. “You can shoot each other anywhere — the body or even in the face. You can also shoot the squares on the walls.”
Squares must seem like a letdown after the beginning of that sentence. A small gaggle of moms stood near the doorway, giggling, reacting in mock horror at the mention of their children being shot in the face.
“They look so adorable!” one mom said. “All that flashing blue and red.”
I wonder what the moms’ real feelings are about laser tag for a seven-year-old’s birthday party. Do they feel as awkward and uncomfortable as I do?
The first battle began. At first, all the kids just stood near the entrance and shot, shot, shot. Then, as they warmed up, they started to branch out and explore the outer space setting of the room. There were walls to hide behind, and ramps up and down throughout the rectangular room.
After I happily shooed my shy son away from my side, he soon looked giddy with a huge grin, sneaking up on his friends from behind and shooting them. Flashing, swirling, streaming neon lights flashed and danced upon the children’s rosy cheeks. Powerful, vibrating, futuristic fighting music pumped out of the speakers all around us.
The boys and girls swarmed in figure eights through the maze of planetary images.
“Got you! Got you!” I heard a little girl shout.
They were having exhilarating fun; there were no negative associations with shooting lasers at friends’ faces, because many of them at this age already play with guns in video games.
“This is heavy!” one small girl proclaimed as she tried to adjust her laser gun.
I tried to be social and pushed away my conflicted feelings of “Oh my God! This is so wrong.” I climbed up a ramp to where some parents gathered. All were in conversation, so I scanned the room.
A boy right below me made a few steps to the comfort of a wall, sobbing. He threw his laser gun down, unsnapped his vest and dropped it. I tried shouting to him to see if he was OK, but the music was overpowering. I motioned to the father of the birthday girl and alerted him to the situation.
He headed down and comforted the boy who was rubbing his calf.
“Are you OK now? Want to get back out there?” the dad shouted. And just like a good soldier, he smiled, got back in gear and cradled his weapon.
For me, a mere month after Veteran’s Day and the Paris terrorist massacre, I didn’t know how to process the experience. And now, after the San Bernardino massacre, I feel just as confused over whether children playing with toy guns is problematic or innocent fun.
I stumbled out of the darkness now that my son was relaxed and off on his own. I sank down to the hallway’s floor as a father with four kids stepped up to the window.
“Five, please,” he said.
“That will be fifty dollars,” the attendant replied.
“Fifty bucks?!” the youngest child questioned.
“Yup,” the father said. “For fifteen minutes.”
They excitedly ran down the hallway and prepared to fight.
I know this isn’t the real world of guns and fighting, but I couldn’t help but wonder if it’s harmless fun or the next step to desensitizing my child to guns. There’s no real discussion about this question amongst the parents. I mean, how can this be harmful? They’re just having fun, right?
Afterwards, my son was hyper-happy. He fell back into line with the other children and followed jauntily behind them toward the party room for pizza and cake.
He was one of the last children into the boisterous room and didn’t manage to grab a seat. He stood pressed up against the wall with wide eyes. I walked into the room from the doorway and tried to convince him to go sit down in the one seat that was left at the middle of the table. But he refused.
I felt myself getting frustrated as he refused to sit but when he looked at me with huge, wet eyes from behind his wire-rimmed glasses, he returned to being my little boy who needed my help.
He came to me outside the party room and sat beside me, not telling me why he was upset.
“You weren’t able to sit next to who you wanted?”
He just looked at me and rolled his eyes.
“I’m trying to help you,” I said. “You have to eat pizza if you want cake.”
“OK, Mom,” he said, drawing out the Mom for a few seconds.
By the time we left, he had his heart set on a laser tag party, too. And now here I am, realizing I’ve broken my rule of never letting my kids play with toy guns.
Actually, I guess I became more lax a while ago. I’ve let them play with water guns because I didn’t want to be seen as ridiculous if I didn’t allow them to squirt each other with water. Then that grew into allowing Nerf-style guns to be used at other people’s houses. And for Halloween, I allowed my son to buy a plastic pirate-style gun for his costume and I didn’t think twice about it.
“You’re OK with that gun?” my husband asked innocently that night.
“What gun?” I asked.
“You know, the one you just bought for our little pirate.”
“Oh, crap. I wasn’t even thinking about it. I was just happy he found a costume he liked and was happy. I honestly didn’t even register in my brain that it’s a gun,” I replied.
And so, there it is. The desensitization that I was so worried about protecting my son from has happened — to me.
Yes, I realize they are only toys. I know I’m teaching my children well about how dangerous guns are, and that if they ever see one they think in the slightest way might be real, to not touch it and run to an adult immediately. But is that enough?
Will my children’s nonchalance at shooting their friends in the face with a laser gun backfire eventually?
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