Gun Violence: Is There a Link to Childhood Toy Guns?

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Most Young Boys Love to Play
Most Young Boys Love to Play "Army" with Toy Guns - Photo Credit rblaminus3
Good Guy Junie and Good Gal Margaret Playing "Guns"
Good Guy Junie and Good Gal Margaret Playing “Guns”

If I tried to come up with the most complex and controversial topic among pro and anti-gun folks, this article title would be it. That is not my intent, but rather I want to try to sincerely simplify, condense, and understand the pros and cons and what today’s professionals believe about the direct relationship between playing with toy guns and the adulthood tendency toward violence. My definition of “playing with toy guns” refers to playing imaginary army, cowboys and indians, cops and robbers, good guys-bad guys, etc. as a young child. Are toy guns a bad influence on young children? Does playing with guns as a child have a definite cause-and-effect association and long-term strong influence on children for violence and aggression? Should kids play with toy guns or even be exposed to them? What do the psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, researchers, and medical professionals believe and why? What can and should we as a moral and righteous society and parents do? What is an acceptable approach for toy guns? Should we have no-tolerance toy gun laws and school rules not allowing anything even similar to a gun to be present? Should we take time, money, and effort, like three states have done in the last few months, to introduce bills to get lenient laws against existing too strict, non-tolerant toy guns rules and laws? What follows are some facts, professional opinions, and my opinions and conclusions purely to help you think about this and make your own decisions. Now this is an emotional issue, so you and I should try to remain calm and rational.

I must fully disclose that I did play with toy guns when I was about age 6 through 10. I was proud of my western-style Roy Rogers’ six-shooter cap gun and my water pistol and spent a lot of time pretending and imaging I was the hero and good guy to overcome the bad guy and evil. Back then, I even respected Roy for just shooting the bad guy in the arm and not being overly aggressive, even though I knew he was a crack shot. Sometimes I was Superman to deal with Lex Luthor and sometimes Batman to handle The Penguin. Whether or not I am presently of sound mind, fully in control of my behaviors, have positive values, and prone to violence and criminal aggression is presently under assessment by my family. Not the courts or psychiatrists I might add. Understand I did not feel persecuted, misunderstood, nor did I aggressively kick my dog. I would like to begin with my list of the recent “Top 10 Ridiculous Toy Gun Events” (not fully verified) that caused this topic to come to mind:

  1. Sam, a 7-year-old boy brought a toy plastic gun to school in his book bag (and never took it out) in Florida; the zero-tolerance school gun policy kicked in, Sam was suspended, and then mandatorily expelled from school for a year (punishment is pending about another year’s extension);
  2. Joey, a 9-year-old boy received a 3-day suspension from a Rhode Island school, after a key chain with a toy gun roughly 2 inches long fell out of his schoolbag in class;
  3. Josh, a 6-year-old was suspended for two-days from a Maryland elementary school when the strawberry tart he was eating and trying to turn into the shape of a mountain looked like a gun; the boy said he didn’t mean to make his food look like a gun;

    Strawberry Tart pastry Shaped-Like-Gun Picture from Huffington Post
    Strawberry Tart pastry Shaped-Like-Gun Picture from Huffington Post
  4. A 5-year-old boy turned and moved his hand into the shape of a gun and gestured with his hand while playing on the playground in North Carolina and was suspended from school;
  5. A 6-year-old boy was suspended in Massachusetts over a toy plastic gun about the “size of a quarter” for causing a “disturbance” and “traumatizing” other students by bringing it on the school bus in 2013; he had to write a letter of apology, according to TownHall.com;

    Quarter-Sized Plastic Toy Gun Picture from Townhall.com
    Quarter-Sized Plastic Toy Gun Picture from Townhall.com
  6. A young boy in New York “talked” to two of his classmates about going to another boy’s house with a water gun and BB gun and the school officials called the police and the father’s concealed carry permit was revoked;
  7. A 5-year-old girl in Pennsylvania was suspended for 10 days and reportedly labeled a “terrorist threat” for threatening to shoot her friend with a toy pink Hello Kitty bubble gun that spits bubbles, while waiting for her school bus and she did not have the fake gun with her, according to Associated Press reports;
  8. A student under the age of 11 brought a pocket knife with a 2″ blade to school and was immediately expelled in Louisiana;
  9. Several young students got permission from their teachers to bring toy NERF guns to school as part of a scientific experiment in a Washington classroom; those who brought toy guns to school and all the children who were present were suspended by the administrator, while the teachers were unpunished;
  10. A sixth-grade boy in Maryland was suspended from school for 10 days for saying the word “gun” when talking with his friends on a school bus; he said he wished he had a gun to stop the bad guys; his father received a visit from the police who wanted to search his house; and the crazy events go on and on.

These incidents are not normal to me and seem to be the over reaction of well meaning administrators who are incredibly sensitive due to recent incidents of mass homicides in schools. As a former university dean and professor, student adviser, industrial human relations manager, military teacher and provost, and present NRA instructor, I certainly have dealt with my share of behavioral and student issues and discipline. There were instances of cheating on exams, real and imagined bullying, a lack of parental involvement, student/teacher conflicts, teacher/parent clashes, theft, workers’ comp fraud, and more. One thing I luckily never had to face was the potential suspension of a young student for making a toy gun out of materials in art class or a pastry, or using his or her hand as a pretend gun during recess. Did or will these kids turn into hardened violent criminals because of their pretend guns and games and imaginary enemies and friends? The recent harsh discipine, suspension, and expulsion approach and trend because of the possible dangerous long-term derogatory results of toy guns are ridiculous albeit common. What are we to do in our society and in our families about real and toy guns, the gun control division and controversy, and how can the “experts” help us, before we totally self-destruct?

This is my opinion about some of the factors at work today. As much as I want to be objective and omit political views, I do honestly believe there is a heated battle and gridlock now between the Right conservatives and the Left liberals about gun control. This has influenced the “no tolerance” toy gun or any gun policies that harshly punish children for wielding imaginary fake weapons, as well as adults. Recognize that no one is killed or injured by these toy guns and no crimes are committed by innocent young kids pretending to play with guns and get the bad guy. Maybe children are being persecuted for their imagination, natural aggressiveness, and creativity. Maybe the real concern is our societal values, priorities, philosophies, the teachers and school administrators and boards that allow these ridiculous punishments to happen, and the parents without a long-term vision and with their head in the sand about genuine evil that sadly does exist. It is not the tool or gun, but the individual that has uncontrolled violent thoughts and tendencies and does the evil with the tool. What role does mental health play? Maybe our goals and priorities are misaligned toward the short-term, rather than toward the long-run big picture. Is it a natural predisposition for kids to play with guns and express aggression, anger, and violence?

Kids Playing Cowboy and Indian... and horse
Kids Playing Cowboy and Indian… and horse – Photo credit dhjewkes

What the Experts Say

One of the experts is Dr. Joshua Weiner, an Arlington, VA-based psychiatrist who specializes in children and adolescents. He says this about little boys being predisposed to gun play. “All one needs to do is look around to see that a connection exists.” Weiner says “This connection is likely—like most things—a combination of genetics and environment.” In today’s society, it is difficult to shield a child from “expressions of violence,” whether they come from television shows, video games or even older siblings and friends, Weiner notes. “Boys are likely predisposed to respond and probably have some yet-unknown gene which contributes to this behavior,” he adds. “Think about men being the hunter/gatherer and needing to kill for food and to protect their family,” he says.
Still, identifying and accepting this aggression in boys doesn’t make it any easier for parents and society.

Kids Playing Cops and Bad Guy (Dog)
Kids Playing Cops and Bad Guy (Dog) – Photo credit costumeworks

Some worry that playing with guns as a child desensitizes kids to violence, but research does not support this. Researchers, like Dr. Jay Mechling at the University of California, say it can actually help teach children to read each other’s facial cues and body language, figure out their place in a group, and learn how to adjust their behavior socially. Remember, when kids are playing with toy guns they do so within a play frame they have created and for them a shooting is not a real shooting, but imaginary. Mechling says through the mind of a child, their gun play is fun play and not violence as adults see it. Imaginary play fosters self-regulation, creativity, and expression which is essential for success. Dr. Michael Thompson, child psychologist says “Everyone has an informal causation theory that playing with guns leads to the use of guns in adulthood, yet most adult men who did engage in gun play as children do not commit violent crimes.”

Most Young Boys Love to Play "Army" with Toy Guns
Most Young Boys Love to Play “Army” with Toy Guns – Photo Credit rblaminus3

Other child experts say there is no research or data that proves a child who plays with toy guns will grow up to be a violent adult who might pull off a tragic scenario like the one in Connecticut. Dr. Daniel Stauber of Community Psychological Consultants in Indiana says “It all depends on the child. There is nothing inherently good or bad about kids playing with toy guns.” Guns aren’t the problem… people are. If you teach your children a respect for life and others, and instill Christian values, then fake guns are only toys to kids at a young age. It is not a gun that objectifies a human life, it is the person whose needs come in front of the life and needs of others. Directly or indirectly blaming children’s toy-gun play distracts from the genuine, top-priority and complex issues of societal treatment of mental illness, drug abuse, enforcement of existing laws, and gun control, etc. for us as adults.

Psychiatrists say that violent people typically display warning signs that include such behavior as cruelty to animals, extreme isolation and rejection, and a feeling of being persecuted and misunderstood. Experts say that pretend weapons or imaginary good and bad guys play by kids brings the opposite. It’s social, cooperative, and part of developing morality and dealing with conflict. Children recognize that weapons hold power and they explore this power and fears in their safe play world at a young age. So as a society and as parents, it is our job to help kids cope with their honest and innate emotions and deal positively with conflict and creativity, while creating an open, honest, understanding, and encouraging environment. Fantasy play is healthy and we should not censor or criticize it because we as adults imagine it as reality. To deal positively with anger, appropriately express their emotions, and effectively resolve conflict without hitting another or shooting them in adulthood. What a challenge in today’s world! We certainly cannot reform the world through censoring our children’s play and limiting their exploration. Under our close monitoring and tutelage, we must permit them to explore reality. They must know the difference between the real world as it exists now, with its good AND bad, the difference between a real gun and a toy gun, and how to control their anger and resolve conflict.

Dr. Lucy Daniels, a clinical psychologist, established her Foundation dedicated to fostering emotional and creative freedom of children through education and psychoanalytic treatment and research. She made it clear that children’s mental health is the most important aspect of any child’s social and cognitive development. She says that some “parents do not want their child to view weapons as playthings and consider prohibiting their child from using toy weapons. But, parents can utilize an understanding of the meaning of aggression and violence for young children to guide their opinions about the use of weapons as playthings.” She added that “all children possess aggressive feelings and wishes to disconnect, hurt, retaliate, and take from others… to respond with angry feelings and aggressive thoughts to emotional or physical distress. Boys generally have stronger aggressive responses than do girls.” Dr. Daniels emphasized that young children “need an environment in which aggression between people is kept within appropriate bounds and disagreements reach satisfactory resolutions in order to successfully master their aggressive tendencies.” She summarized by saying that we should become concerned about children’s relationship to aggression “only if they appear to be overly pre-occupied with aggression in their thoughts or actions outside the sphere of play, or if the play aggression (e.g. use of toy guns) has an extremely violent or gruesome character.” She recommends that parents “comfortably accept their children’s aggressive play as a suitable arena for a contained and controlled expression of aggressive feelings… with a clear and firm expectation that children keep any hurtful aggressions within their thoughts and play and outside real relationships.” So I guess all is not lost for me… and us. By the way that’s me Junie (I’m a Junior) in the first picture as a 9-year-old kid playing guns with my grandmother and our toy guns.

Well, there are some ideas for you to think about. What are your thoughts about the relationship between kids playing with toy guns and adult violence with guns?

Continued success!

Photos by author & others as indicated.
* This personal opinion article is meant for general information & educational purposes only and the author strongly recommends that you seek counsel from an attorney in your state or jurisdiction for legal advice and your own personal certified weapons trainer for proper guidance about shooting & using YOUR firearms, self-defense, stand your ground law, and concealed carry. This is not legal advice and not legal opinions. It should not be relied upon as accurate for all shooters & the author assumes no responsibility for anyone’s use of the information and shall not be liable for any improper or incorrect use of the information or any damages or injuries incurred whatsoever.
© 2014 Col Benjamin Findley. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reprinted or reproduced in whole or in part by mechanical means, photocopying, electronic reproduction, scanning, or any other means without prior written permission. For copyright information, contact Col Ben Findley at [email protected]