Friday, December 14, 2012

Gun Play: Our Children and Gun Culture

I had the beginning of this post in my drafts for the past week, and it's been sitting there while I dealt with the stress of finals and the flurry of grading and prepping for holiday parties.

I didn't even hear about the Connecticut school shooting this morning until late in the afternoon because I had been so focused on trying to get papers graded that I hadn't seen the news. When I heard about it, all that flurry and hustling came to a dead stop around me, and I sobbed. I read a lot of terrible news, but nothing hits your gut like reports that 20 elementary school children were gunned down. That's . . . that's just too much to deal with, and I cannot imagine the grief, pain, and fear that all of those impacted are feeling.

There is one tiny piece of this tragedy that I can pull out and deal with though. When Jersey City mayor Jerramiah Healy (a gun control proponent) said that now is not the time to talk about gun control, he was right. The time has already passed us.

The more guns, the more homicide, and the U.S. has a lot of guns. We have 88.8 guns per 100 citizens, the highest of any country on which there are statistics. We overwhelmingly have the worst record for mass shootings. Eleven of the 50 worst mass shootings happened in the United States. By comparison, Finland is in second place, where two have occurred.

There is something wrong with the way our country deals with guns. I know that saying this angers people, and I know that a lot of people take gun ownership very seriously, but if the love of owning a gun makes you incapable of even recognizing that our country has a cultural problem that needs to be discussed, then you're part of the problem, too.

Gun Con

I'm not saying that it's simple. 

I grew up with guns in my house. There are pictures of my father proudly holding up the first rabbit he hunted at the age of 7. I received a BB gun for Christmas when I was around the same age, and I used to proudly take it out into the woods with my dad where I would promptly scare away all of the game. I grew up in a hunting town, and many of my family members are hunters. I respect them and this part of their lives. They are almost without exception respectful of the life around them, even as they hunt it.

I also had toy guns as a child, and I was watching Pulp Fiction when I was 12. I most certainly am not trying to claim that toy guns are the culprit behind these mass shootings. 

But I am definitely sure that toy guns are a part of the culture, and the culture is a problem. 

Just like I think Bratz dolls are a tool of our patriarchal rape culture, I think toy guns are a tool of our gun culture. Do I think either of these toys "cause" the heinous crimes committed as parts of those systems? No. Do I think that the existence of these toys excuses or somehow removes the culpability of the individual criminals who commit these acts? Of course not. But do I think that examining the choices we make surrounding these toys could make a difference to the culture as a whole? Most definitely. 

The Toy Gun Debate

But it's still not simple. There have been two very interesting posts demonstrating that recently: blue milk discusses how she tried to keep toy guns out of her house and failed and this post from Offbeat Families examines how to handle kids and gun safety (ranging from toy guns to asking about where guns are kept during play dates).

I don't really know how to handle this either. My nephew has toy guns at my mom's house, and I've tried to put them out of view when my daughter's there. When some of my friend's kids were "shooting" my daughter with a toy gun, it made my stomach knot up and I asked them to stop. I felt like I stepped on my friend's toes, and I honestly wasn't trying to be judgmental of her parenting choice to let them play with toy guns, but my reaction to seeing my daughter around one is almost visceral: I hate it. 

I do think that kids can be around guns responsibly (as the seven-year-old version of my father could probably attest), and I don't think that violent play is necessarily a bad thing (as many studies have shown that it can be psychologically productive and even more than that have shown that it's practically inevitable). However, I don't think that violent play has to mean gun play, and I don't think that just because a toy gun is "make believe" that it doesn't have a real impact. 

But what does that mean in practice? My daughter is two years old, so right now it's (relatively) easy for it to mean no guns ever. But what happens when she's older and is at other people's houses? What about water guns? What about NERF guns (or whatever the equivalent is these days)? What about video games with guns? What if I manage to keep her completely away from guns and then the kids at daycare build some out of Legos or start shooting with their fingers? For me, these are complicated questions that have to be navigated on a case-by-case basis, and I plan to navigate them as I go. 

What isn't a complicated question--at least not to me--is how our children need to view guns. 

Challenging Gun Culture

We have to stop loving our guns so much. I'm not even arguing that we have to outlaw them, but we have to stop seeing them as magic talismans that represent patriotism and freedom. They are tools of violence. Sometimes they can be tools of productive violence (i.e. hunting, defense), but they are always tools of violence, and we need to see them that way. Gun culture is not simply figuring out why horrible murderers commit horrible murders. There will always be aberrant, unhealthy people who commit atrocities. But we can't use the fact that people always have and likely always will do terrible things to keep us from even discussing our obsession with guns. As these letters to the NYT demonstrate, the advocacy of gun rights so completely dominates our conversation that we often don't even have the conversation.

While a child can learn that lesson and have access to toy guns, I think that it makes it difficult. Just as I think that it's difficult to teach a little girl to have a strong self-image if all of her dolls have unnatural proportions, I think that the way we treat toy guns seeps into the way we view guns as a whole. 

So here's the thing, though, do we just not talk about guns at all?

I would love for my daughter to just not have to know what a gun is. But that's not practical or safe. She is likely to be around guns. We live in an urban area, and I'm sure that there are guns in some of the homes around us. It will (unfortunately) not be unrealistic for her to hear some gunfire in the street at some point. As I've already mentioned, several of my family members have guns and let their kids play with toy guns. Then, there are days like today when she will see the news and hear about a horrible tragedy. Guns are a part of our lives. 

I am still navigating how to handle guns as a parent, and I am sure that my view will evolve and that I'll make some mistakes. What I know, though, is that America's love of guns is not healthy, and it's a sickness I want to inoculate my child against. I just need to find the best way to do that. 

How do you handle guns with your children? What's your stance on play guns? Do you let them watch the news when shootings are discussed? What's the hardest part about gun culture and parenting?

Photo: yuichirock


  1. I think like Blue Milk I come at this from a very different place to you. Living in Australia I do not know of any urban dwelling individual who owns a gun. The only people who use/own guns in my life do so for work(farmers, police, army). I realised on a trip to Nepal during the height of the Maoist conflict how lucky I was to be petrified of guns, travelling alongside a 21 year old Israeli girl who had served 2 years in the Army and lost many of her family to gun fire.

    We don't have toy guns of any kind in our house, I would consider making one disappear if it made our way in, but I would also try to talk to my kids about violence. The point of difference is they do not represent our culture at all. They represent a culture of story books, movies and historical stories. All the same things that you write of disturb me but I am very grateful for that distance that the Australian culture can give me to make the issue much more about philosophy rather than our lived reality.

    1. That is a very good point, and one that's hard for me to even wrap my mind around as someone who has always lived in a gun culture. I still would like to make toy guns in my house disappear, but it takes a village and all. I know I'm not (and shouldn't be) the only influence in my child's life. The culture around her is obsessed with guns, and I truly don't know how to deal with that.

  2. I live in a country where gun ownership is minimal (very few people own guns) and it is very heavily controlled and watched. We have very strict gun ownership and hunting laws so guns are not a part of our own culture. The only people that own them use them for hunting or for their job (such as police). And that is something I am thankful for. Children in my country don´t grow up with guns being a normal part of everyday life and most end up fearing them quite a bit. I can say that no one in my country gets the 2nd amendment in the American constitution that gun ownership is one´s righ for protection (as we interpret it). We dont get it and areall very critical of American gun ownership.

    But having said that. I work in a preschool and sadly the little boys I work with are obsessed with guns which they are exposed to through television (NOT through my own country´s culture!) and they fashion guns out of everything. I have had a child maim at me and shout BANG and it terrified me. It´s very difficult to stop the boys from gun play and building but I try hard to instill with them the rule that they should never ever, under no circumstances aim their pretend guns at their friends and/or teachers and pretend to shoot. And they take that rule seriously and only aim at the sky or tress/inanimate objects. But still their gun play saddens me.

    1. Are you living in China? It's the exact same here. Very, very few people own guns, but the children are obsessed with them and in their movies the gun violence is frighteningly disturbing (and highly glorified).

  3. In addition to gun culture, I think one needs to look at our health care as well, which makes it difficult for some people to access psychiatric care. Like many health issues, many people don't know how to access affordable counseling and psychiatrists or don't have the insurance do so. I'm not saying everyone would take that option. But what if regular psychiatric care was made universal and a norm rather than the exception? I wonder.

    1. I COMPLETELY agree. Affordability and the stigma surrounding mental health are huge pieces of this terrible puzzle.

  4. When you say that America is the worst for mass shooting, you're not taking population into account. Finland is like 1/30th the size of the U.S, so it's hardly a case of "America has 11, Finland has 2, America is worse".

    If per capita is taken into account, if America and Finland were exactly the same, America would have 60 mass shootings, not 11.

    1. I guess for that particular statistic, that's true. However, America is overwhelmingly more violent than any comparable country, and that's when adjusting for population differences.

      As this article explains, someone living in America is four times more likely to be murdered than someone living in Britain, six times more likely than someone living in Germany, and thirteen times more likely than someone living in Japan. That article also points out that 2/3 of American murders are by gun, while only 10% of murders in Britain are gun-related.

      Likewise,this article shows that America far outpaces all comparable countries in violent deaths.

      This article) shows how much our individual gun ownership absolutely towers over every other country.

      All of those statistics are adjusted for population density, so it's incredibly clear that we have a gun problem other countries do not have.

    2. It may be more violent, but you have a Ph.D. I'm sure you've heard the old "correlation is not causation" bit more times than you can count. Having a higher rate of gun ownership and having a higher rate of violence doesn't prove that one causes the other. One of the nations you've mentioned (Japan) has a shockingly high suicide rate; and it's listed in the article as one of the nations with the strictest gun controls; are we supposed to assume there's a connection there?

      Americans also have the highest rate of singles in the world; that is, people that live entirely by themselves with no family members or roommates. We rank the highest on individualistic thinking and principals. We actually hit the extreme end on all kinds of trends.

      I suppose what I am questioning is: if we have more violence and more violent deaths, what is there that shows that it is guns that is the cause of that, and not some other factor of American lifestyle or culture, as Japan's suicide rate is? And why is that our gun homicides are more but our mass shooting rate is less? Is gang violence and domestic murders less of a problem in other countries? I know the domestic violence rates in the U.K are significantly lower than in the U.S. Canada's DV rates seem to be noticeably lower as well. My concern is that the U.S seems to be generally more violent in a lot of ways, not just with guns.

      I guess the question in my mind really is: Does gun ownership cause a culture of violence, or does a culture of violence cause a culture of gun ownership?

      Well I guess I am getting entirely off point, but I would like to say I appreciate your post. I never really realized how prevalent guns were in toys; of course we are all aware of how much they are in video games, but I hadn't thought much of younger children and how much gun play they are invited to engage in.

    3. Thank you for your comments; you're making great points.

      I don't know if having guns causes us to be more violent. In fact, I think that the other things that you're talking about are probably more likely. Something about our culture causes us to be violent, and that violence causes us to really like guns.

      I certainly am not saying "ban guns and our violence will go away." In fact, I'm not saying to ban guns at all, and I understand why people would want them for protection (though I don't) and why people would want them to hunt (though I don't).

      My main thing is that--in the past few days especially, but beyond that as well--people who are supportive of gun ownership tend to utterly shut down the conversation when it comes to discussing gun control. Gun control takes on a lot of forms, and I haven't heard very many gun control advocates talking about a ban.

      When presented with all of that data on our violence, our gun ownership, and our rates of mass murder, I don't understand how people can just say "well, we need more guns so people can be safer," which is the response that I have gotten from A LOT of people who are really angry at me for suggesting that we need to at least talk about the cultural elements surrounding our gun love. The things that you're bringing up are exactly the things I think we need to be talking about.