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.
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?