A generation ago, it wouldn’t be unusual to see kids running around their neighborhood wielding toy guns as they played cowboys or cops and robbers. But as school shootings have become frighteningly commonplace and with gun control being such a controversial issue, playing with toy guns doesn’t seem that innocent anymore.
Many schools have even implemented zero tolerance policies on guns, and in some cases, have suspended children for pointing their fingers in the shape of a gun and pretending to shoot another student.
Some parents feel that playing with toy guns sends the wrong message, making light of a deadly weapon — or worse, that toy guns increase aggression in children. Others see playing with toy weapons as a natural, age-old way for kids to explore important themes in life, including good vs. evil, to develop a sense of morality, and feel empowered by pretending to be a hero.
Most parents don’t encourage their kids to play with toy guns. According to study of 830 parents published in the journal Pediatrics, nearly 70 percent believe that it’s never OK for a child to play with toy guns, and 66 percent forbid them in their home. That may stem from the concern that playing with toy guns leads to aggressive or violent behavior. But unlike with violent video games, there’s little research that links toy guns to violence later on in life.
Playing with toy guns isn’t as innocent as it used to be. (Photo: Corbis Images.)
That said playing with a toy gun could have painful and even deadly consequences. There have been several incidences that involved tween and teens being shot and killed by police officers who mistakenly thought the boys were holding real, rather than toy, weapons. Since 1989, federal law requires that toy guns, though not BB guns, have a blaze orange tip on the end to alert police officers that the gun is fake, but the orange tips can break off. Also, in the heat of the moment, police officers may not be able to make the split-second distinction between a real and a fake gun.
Toy guns also come with a risk of injury. According to the latest figures from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, hospital emergency rooms saw 20,000 injuries from air and paintball guns in 2008 — a 20 percent increase from toy gun injuries in 2006. About 60 percent of ER visits for air and paintball gun injuries were by kids ages 17 and younger. More than 25 percent were for children ages 10 to 14.
What the Experts Say
“It’s easy to see violence and aggression in society and in the media, and then your sweet, innocent child is saying ‘bang bang’ and ‘I killed you,’ and you get overwhelmed with fear about whether he could grow up to be violent,” Katie Morse, a psychotherapist in private practice in Seattle, tells ParentMap.com. “As a parent, those are normal, natural responses.”
But experts note that what may be worrisome to a parent is simply play to a child. “Many young kids (under age five) don’t even understand what shooting someone really means,” Joshua Weiner, a Virginia-based psychiatrist who specializes in children and adolescents, tells PBS. “The shooting is more about power, fantasy and imagination — not killing and death.”
What’s more, the link between toy guns and violence is shaky. “Everyone has an informal causation theory that playing with guns leads to the use of guns in adulthood,” Michael Thompson, PhD, child psychologist and author of It’s a Boy! Your Son’s Development From Birth to Age 18, tells WebMD. “[But] there’s no scientific evidence suggesting that playing war games in childhood leads to real-life aggression.”
In fact, some experts see weapon play as having the opposite effect — as a healthy outlet for channeling aggression safely. Lenore Terr, a child psychiatrist who specializes in childhood trauma, keeps toy guns in her San Francisco office. “I’d tell them that they need to shoot: They need to shoot each other, they need to shoot their parents, they need to shoot me,” Terr tells The Washington Post. “It’s one of the best tools they have for dealing with their aggressions, and taking that away from them only complicates the problems that the people who want to get rid of toy guns are concerned about.”
Adds Helen Boehm, a psychologist and the author of The Right Toys: ”I don’t like toy guns,” she tells The New York Times. ”But ultimately children don’t learn values from toy guns and G.I. Joe. It’s parents and other role models who have the most important influence on a child’s behavior.”
What the Parents Say
"We let our kids play with toy guns, but we have a strict rule of not pointing or aiming at the face. My husband spent his childhood around guns and hunters. Therefore, he has taught our children to hold even a toy gun with respect — in other words, pointed at the ground when not aiming.” — Jane Reilly Mount
"I have young boys who will eventually want to role play as law enforcement and soldiers. Play guns are an inevitability, so I would use their introduction as an opportunity to educate my sons about gun safety and the dangers of handling the real version if they ever come across them." — Debbie O’Malley
"With two very active and imaginative boys — who like to pretend they are police officers or leaders of the Star Wars universe — toy guns have found their way into our home. I believe that if a parent pays close attention to children — how they interact with the toy guns when alone and with friends, what they watch on TV — then the parent will know whether or not toy guns are a good idea.” —Jennifer B.
The Bottom Line
It’s up to parents to decide whether they’re comfortable letting their kids have toy guns. If you allow them in your home, make sure the gun clearly looks like a toy with bright colors and a blaze orange cap, and let kids know that it’s not okay to point the gun at someone’s face, especially if that someone isn’t playing along with them.