Guns have never felt less like toys than throughout this violent, bullet-riddled year. Real guns have rended flesh and stopped hearts -- not just in back alleys and dark parks, but at food fairs, barbecues, movie theatres and, now, an elementary school where 20 children (among 28 total deaths) won't ever have a chance to grow big.
Already, the White House Press Secretary has said "today is not the day" to engage in a policy debate over gun control. But it hardly matters if we all agree that shooting schoolchildren is terrible if we don't do anything to prevent it in the future -- and that is difficult to do in a society that promotes gun culture to even its youngest members.
Throughout all these mass shootings, toymakers have continued to pump out "play" guns of every imaginable size, shape and sound effect, from the AK47 SWAT Team Assault Rifle Machine Gun Toy with Light Scope & Shooting Sounds to the Nerf N-Strike Elite Retaliator Blaster.
Amazon.com boasts over 1200 items in its "toy guns for kids" section while a trip to Toys R Us or Walmart will net you a wide range of Air Zone dart guns, super soakers, and military-inspired Nerf weaponry. Dollar stores offer an even wider selection, complete with old-school cap guns amid their cheap-o toy rifles, handguns, and sci-fi shooters. And then there's the online "superstores" like Toy Arsenal, Buy Toy Guns and Kids Army.
As the parent of a three-year-old boy, toy guns have only recently become an issue. Over the last month or so, he'll sometimes take a stick, make pitchoo sounds and inform us it's "a shooter." He's even tried to build one out of Lego. The boy doesn't even know the word gun, but he wants to play with one, presumably thanks to a preschool playmate.
We always knew we couldn't escape the issue. You know how you'll see one ant, and then suddenly notice that they're everywhere? That's what it's like when you have a toddler--you'll notice suddenly that guns are culturally inescapable, from black-and-white Lone Ranger YouTube videos to brightly coloured superhero cartoons to, sadly, blood-soaked newscasts.
The past year has been so brazenly bullet-riddled, especially this past summer in Toronto, the local public library installed an anti-gun display in their teen book section. But maybe we need to aim the message even younger, since so many people out there seem to be treating real guns with the gravitas of toys.
Raised by hippie parents out west, I grew up in a household where toy guns were verboten. I, of course, simply played with them at friends' houses, or found a stick that was gun-shaped enough to use for a backyard war game or a round of cowboys and Indians. I felt my parents' decision was arbitrary and unfair, especially when I discovered my dad had kept my confiscated water gun for use as a prop in his acting class rather than disposing of it. I just wanted to play with the other kids. It was fun.
So are toy guns really that bad? There are plenty of studies linking fake guns to real aggression, but I find them flawed -- perhaps aggressive kids like to play with toy guns, as opposed to toy guns inspiring kids to act aggressively. And I've played videogames most of my life, including ultraviolent shooters, and am not at all a violent sort. If I decried the critics who tried to blame Columbine on Doom, why should I be so opposed to analog gunplay?
But those games are rated mature for 17 and older gamers, while toy guns are intended for young kids. That's what upsets me -- a feeling that increases with every shooting report from Scarborough, Ontario to Aurora, Colorado to Newtown, Connecticut -- because toy guns are the starting point for a culture that treats actual deadly weapons as playthings.
The anti-political correctness crowd will shout that boys-will-be-boys, even suggesting "the next time that a child tears around the backyard 'killing' all the bad guys and tearing off their heads, we recommend that his or her parent smile and compliment their child's ability to take care of the bad guys." Canada's own Toyland Company absurdly argues "a ban on toy guns can actually stunt children's development and cause increased violence and rule-breaking."
I actually have no inherent problem with violence-tinged role-play. Children see things as black and white, good and evil, and having these two forces battle it out is an innate part of being a kid trying to make sense of the world. They're just pretending, and conflict is an intrinsic part of storytelling. My Autobots and Decepticons didn't exactly have tea parties, my favourite comic was Secret Wars, and when we played Knights of the Round Table, somebody always got pretend-skewered.
But there's something different about gunplay. Perhaps it's because transforming robots and Marvel superheroes are obviously fantastical and a sword is a relic of a bygone era, thus easily differentiating the real and the imagined. But guns, well, there are 87 gun deaths in America every single day and in Toronto alone 2012 has seen 32 gun deaths and 114 gun-related injuries.
My son Emile's natural disposition is sweet. He doesn't start fights in daycare and when he imagined that monsters were invading Pirate Forest (a.k.a. the pathway between our house and our neighbour's), his plan of action was to hug them. But he's still a boy. And most boys like to play with guns. He starting to, as well. But not at our house.
I choose not to be the one ushering my son into a gun culture that treats such real-world murderous weapons as playthings. There are plenty of other toys that can fill our toybox that don't co-star on the nightly news after yet another mass shooting.
Being a parent is a lot of responsibility and when you introduce something into the house, you are giving it your stamp of approval. I don't approve of guns, and therefore won't be buying them for an impressionable small child. I can't control if he plays with guns elsewhere, but that is irrelevant. When he's a teenager he'll also drink beer, but that doesn't mean I should be buying him six-packs.
Growing up in a gun-free house ultimately taught me to think about guns, war and violence in a more profound way. That's something that has stuck with me, and which I choose to pass onward. So if he plays with a gun at a friend's, he'll still be thinking about why he can't play with guns at home.
Look. I don't believe that toy guns turn kids into killers, but I do think that we as a society should be treating guns with more seriousness. I'm not suggesting a ban, but not buying them is a powerful statement.
Already, the number of toy guns in major chains is less (and the designs less realistic) than when I was a kid -- and perhaps events like Newtown will help convince more parents that toy guns aren't the most appropriate playthings to put under the tree. Maybe, one day, the whole idea of toy guns will be viewed with the same "you-sold-these-to-kids?!?" dropped-jaw disbelief as bubble pipes and candy cigarettes.
*An older version of this story ran in the Grid on July 27, 2012.