Over the weekend, on a party supplies run at Flying Tiger, the charming Danish discount store, my 4-year-old daughter’s eyes sparkled at the sight of a neon-color water gun. “Can I have that?” she asked—the same question she’d repeated at the sight of the modeling clay and princess crowns and silly straws.
I wavered for a beat. I’d come of age in the late ’80s and ’90s—the height of the backyard Super Soaker battle. And before that water gun became the hottest ticket at Toys “R” Us, my brother and I had wielded tiny green plastic water pistols filled and refilled with rudimentary plugs, sneakily shooting each other in the eyes. I remember all of this as pure, absurd fun.
“No,” I told my daughter, and briskly steered her on.
I offered no explanation in the moment—and I hadn’t really turned the question over in my head before—but my gut gave me my answer: that I didn’t want to introduce her to this or any other gun in a world that already seemed to be teeming with them in movies and video games, on TV and, most of all, on the news. Her fleeting interest in the toy gun was innocent, but, sadly, my view of it no longer was. The water gun fights my brother and I used to have in the summer were from another era, maybe even another world—before Columbine and Parkland; Orlando and Sutherland Springs; and before these much-covered mass shootings rightfully reminded the public of the regularly occurring violence in lower socioeconomic and minority communities. Back then, guns might have been just toys; now, it’s impossible for me not to see them as charged with the trauma of recent events.
I considered that same question again today—should we let our children play with toy guns at a time when the U.S. is grappling with the impact of gun violence?—when I saw the pictures of Prince George holding a rather realistic-looking black toy gun at an English polo match over the weekend. Part of the debate over toy guns has hinged on distinguishing them, clearly, as toys—so as never to be mistaken for the real thing. There are state laws, including one in New York, requiring toy guns be brightly colored, as opposed to black, aluminum, or silver. Perhaps for this reason, the photos stood out: to some eyes, the prince’s looked eerily like a real pistol.
“I gasped when I saw the photos,” an American friend said on Facebook.
And she has a reason to: America has a gun violence homicide rate that is 25 times higher than that of other developed countries, according to Everytown for Gun Safety; we outrank all other countries in the number of mass shootings that occur here; we own an estimated half of all civilian guns worldwide. A child wielding a toy gun in the U.K., where firearms are much harder to obtain, arouses a different sense of shock or unease than they might in America, though no less alarming—remember the brouhaha when Pippa Middleton’s friend pointed a firearm out of their convertible at a paparazzi?
There’s also the matter of who’s holding the toy gun. “The photo of Prince George juxtaposed with the story of Tamir Rice, a young black boy killed by police in Ohio because he had a toy gun in hand is an important part of the racial and white supremacy dynamics at play here,” Erika Soto Lamb, the founding and former head of communications for Everytown and Moms Demand Action for Gun Safety and a mother of two sons, ages 5 and 7, told Vogue. “It’s not safe for a black child in America to play with toy guns.”
Soto Lamb is a Texas native who was raised around real guns; she grew up playing cops and robbers and revering A Christmas Story—the irreverent classic in which mischievous young Ralphie Parker dreams of his very own BB gun. But she does not allow her two sons to play with toy guns of any kind. While at Everytown and Moms Demand Action, “when my life was a daily deluge of news stories about gun violence in America, and working with mothers whose children had been killed, it was simply untenable to come home and hand my children guns to play with,” Soto Lamb said.
When I began asking other parents today about kids and toy guns, many echoed her uneasiness. “My daughter is just 3, but I don’t think a gun can be an innocent toy in this day and age,” Anna Davies, a fellow writer in Jersey City, New Jersey, told me. “It’s much easier to just not have them in our lives.” Another friend said she was “uncomfortable” when her 5-year-old daughter recently received a toy water gun in a birthday party goodie bag. One mother stealthily returned a “machine-gun” toy loaded with foam pellets that her son received at his own birthday party. “It was designed to look like the real deal,” she said. “I was so horrified, I immediately stashed it away while he was busy tearing into his other gifts.”
I can hear the other side now: that parents denying their kids toy guns are overthinking this. That a toy is still just a toy. But if Barbies arguably possess the power to body shame little girls, and princesses can mess with their sense of independence, then can’t guns, even if just subliminally, sanction violence? “I believe we have a cultural problem with guns in this country, and I don’t want to normalize the use of them,” Kathy Healy Champion, a mother of three in Connecticut, said. She doesn’t allow her children to play with toy guns. “I see it as a step in the right direction.”
After Sandy Hook, Soto Lamb says she began to view A Christmas Story through a different lens: “I realized that America’s problem with gun violence goes deeper than any laws, there is a cultural shift that needs to happen,” she said. “We give them blocks to inspire them to be builders, we give them paint to inspire artistic expression . . . what are we feeding our children, in the metaphorical sense, when we hand them toy guys to play with?”
It doesn’t have to be a real gun to spark debate: According to Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Twitter, even emoji guns carry a certain charge that doesn’t necessarily belong in our texts or tweets: all of those companies scrapped their original gun emojis in favor of “water guns.” The TSA—Transportation Security Administration—recommends toy guns be packed with checked baggage; it bans “squirt guns, Nerf guns, toy swords, or other items that resemble realistic firearms or weapons.”
For some parents, the question of how to handle toy guns is ongoing—some allow just water guns and only of the bright-colored variety. Others have nuanced rules—that toy guns should never be pointed at people or used to pretend-kill someone. (But, then again, that’s usually the point of a gun, whether real or fake.) Some parents say the decision isn’t easy—one mother reluctantly allows her sons to partake in paintball gunning, so as not to make them feel left out among friends. The hardest part for Soto Lamb is banning water guns. “Water guns are really so fun, but let’s be honest, Super Soakers are basically assault weapon–style water guns,” she said. “We make do with water blasters”—long tubes with no trigger—“and water balloons.”
Several parents told me their concerns about toy guns tend to get dwarfed by their worry over real gun violence. Responding to some online backlash about Prince George’s toy gun, Davies said, “I wish the outrage would continue to be directed at the NRA, not Prince George and the royal family. Maybe if we lived in a society that had strict gun laws, our toddlers could also play with pretend guns. I think it’s actually something to aspire to—let’s become a society where guns are just as fantastical as lightsabers.”