Being pretty much a pacifist, I am horrified by my son’s fixation on guns – Airsoft guns, which shoot plastic pellets, paintball guns, and virtual guns used to shoot aliens/enemies/glitches via Xbox. Not having fallen freshly from the turnip truck, I am aware of the mass of data showing that exposure to meaningless violence in games, television and movies can desensitize children to its true horrors. I also know that many families choose not to allow their children to have toy guns or violent games, and that sometimes they are just the tiniest bit smug about their triumphs as I writhe in silent agony knowing that my kid is at his friend Troy’s house with his arsenal, darting around corners in hopes of a successful ambush. “Oh,” they will say, “Sam has guns.” Even in the blandest of tones, this translates to: “we would never let our children have toy guns and we would never let them play war games on Xbox and your son is on his way to being caught in abandoned shed in Idaho after mailing carefully crafted bombs to 30 innocent people.”
I will repeat, for reasons of my own insecurity and defensiveness, that I, personally, am a person who takes bugs outside rather than killing them. I do not believe in hitting children, or animals, or domestic partners, and I am often troubled by violent images in the media, thinking long after wards about the families of those hurt or killed, and the kind of mind and/or circumstance required to hurt another person intentionally. I know that some people, like law enforcement officers and soldiers have to be trained to use weapons, and that they are using them because it is their duty to protect us. I understand that the deer hunters who glory in their conquests and male bonding are also reducing the surplus population so that the animals die quickly (and are often used for food) rather than starving to death over the course of a long winter. I am also crystal clear on the fact that I could not be a soldier, a police officer or a hunter, no matter how objectively noble my mission. I have often played with myself the “could you shoot someone if they threatened your child?” game, and I still don’t know the answer. Maybe my protective instincts and adrenaline would combine to push me in that direction, but maybe I would be frozen and incapacitated, unable to overcome my pacifist nature. Fortunately, I’ve never been tested.
Looking around my living room this very moment I see an Airsoft pistol on a chair, a rifle in a corner, and containers of plastic pellets sitting on the stairs. Do these things represent a complete failure, on my part, to convey to a basically good-hearted and compassionate boy my darkest thoughts about violence and the use of weapons? If I were sufficiently persuasive, could I have overridden all of his impulses to play war, to collect guns, and to dream of the next time he can out-maneuver a friend and claim triumph? This is a more tortured issue than, say, banning sugared cereal or limiting computer time. Unlike some aspects of parental control, which are judged behind closed doors, allowing guns and war play is (pardon the unfortunate construction) an easy target.
My theory is that no matter how many times I pointed out that “dead people are really dead,” or explained the physical impact of a hollow-point bullet on human flesh, I could have repressed, but not eradicated the desire to bear arms and plan battles. On my father’s side, my great-grandfather was an Army officer, and my father a historian who loves reading about battle strategies. I grew up watching “The Sand Pebbles” and “Tora! Tora! Tora!,” making models of Sopwith Camels and Japanese Zeroes, and visiting battlefields in this country and Europe. On my mother’s side, I have two uncles, both of whom were reservists for many years, and one of whom was a police officer for a time. My brother grew up fascinated by military history, fighter planes and literature about war (often, to be fair, about the horrors of war). His sons, my nephews, share these interests. My husband was in the Navy and is at this moment studying up on the strategies employed by the Mongols under the leadership of Genghis Khan. All of the men in my life would be thrilled to spend an evening watching “Glory,” with tears in their eyes as Shaw and his men fought for their pride and their country.
Not a single one of these men and boys is, or was, violent or aggressive. They are mostly as interested in strategy and a kind of power/nobility/finesse thing. They like to hit the target, to make the shot, and to make it look effortless. They like the idea of comrades in arms, espirit de corps, and a well-executed attack. None of the adults among them are careless about the cost of war, either. I remember my father standing at the edge of a World War II graveyard in France, mute and somber as we looked out over what seemed like miles of white crosses, and the occasional Star of David. As we walked away, towards our car, he recited “In Flanders Fields.” My husband recently told me that the worst kind of fighting he could think of was during the Civil War, when lines of men simply walked towards each other, firing at the oncoming enemy. My brother is a devotee of both Rupert Brooke and the writers who were emotionally savaged by war; he and I have both, I think wept over “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.” There is no blood lust in these men and boys; there is a complex balance of nature, nurture and (in the case of the adults) deep recognition of the realities of armed conflict.
I don’t, personally, share their feelings except on a kind of knee-jerk emotional level, but I respect and accept them. They are not war-mongers any more than I am a physician because I become enmeshed with the work of Dr. House and his team. It can’t really be just a “masculine thing,” because I know that there are men who could not be less interested in military history, weapons or strategy, and I know that there are many women who are military officers and analysts, police officers and hunters. I never wanted to play with guns, to learn to shoot a real gun for sport or personal protection, to have a gun in the house, or to play violent games. We do not have a gun in our house, and when Sam was younger, I routinely asked whether there was a gun in any house where he would be playing. These are the choices I have made for myself and, with the consent of my husband, for my family. They work for me.
I would have chosen that there would never be a toy gun or a violent game in the house, as well, and I could, theoretically, have stood my ground and made that happen. Because we do not live in a granola-scented corner of Vermont, I would have had to explain again and again why it was that other boys (including his cousins) could have guns and play war games, but he could not. I would probably have had to explain why his beloved Papa spent an hour showing him the Civil War battlefield and museum in Franklin, Tennessee, and his father had worked on an aircraft carrier on the Pacific, but we hated guns and war and would give them no quarter in our own house. In the end, I did not simply collapse and throw up my hands; I made a decision that I could not negate what seems to be a part of growing up for many people, including several that I love and respect. (You know, of course, that I wanted to write “many men,” which would have been more accurate but totally politically incorrect). Many parents stand their ground on this issue, and that is their perfect right. Under different circumstances, I might have been one of them, but it happens that I’m not.
The “toy gun v. no toy gun” debate among parents and other “experts” is not about Testosterone v. Estrogen, or Psycho Killer v. Pacifist. It is about fear of what the guns mean to parents, and children, and what lessons might be learned if guns and war games are allowed into the home. I have made it clear that I do not like guns, and I take every opportunity to speak my mind about the real human cost of violence, organized or random. If I believed that allowing Sam to have Airsoft guns and play Call of Duty was shaping a human being who was callous about human life, or prone to acting aggressively, I would work with his father to impose different rules about what he owns and how he plays. I don’t believe that having the toy guns or allowing the games will cause an otherwise stable, sweet-natured child to become Rambo, any more than it had that effect on his grandfathers, great uncles, uncle or father. I don’t like it, and I never will, but I have to pick my battles, and waging this particular war based on my own biases would not justify the probable body count.