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A Hello to Arms

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 allowingย  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.

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About imagineannie

I feel like I'm fifteen - does that count? I'm lots of things, I get paid to be the Managing Editor for a local news publication, and I love my job. I am also inordinately fond of reading, animals (I have four), elephants, owls, hedgehogs writing, tramping in the woods, cooking India, Ireland, England, avocado toast, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, Little Women, Fun Home, Lumber Janes, Fangirl, magic, Neil Gaiman, Jane Austen, YA books, not YA books, classical music, Salinger (OMG SALINGER), Brahms, key lime pie, indie music, podcasts, sleeping in, road trips, marmalade, museums, bookstores, the Oxford comma, BBC, The Miss Fisher Mysteries, birdwatching, seashells, kombucha, and stickers. Not a huge fan of chewing gum, jazz, trucker hats or dystopian and/or post-apolcalyptic fiction (but I'll try anything).

16 responses »

  1. I remember when Eddie was little, we told our family, “No guns as gifts please!” but of course, that’s all he wanted even as a little tyke. Our family complied for a long time, until my mother began to point out that Eddie was using pointy sticks as guns and that it probably would be safer to just buy a Nerf gun or the Buzz Lightyear Laser. We now have a varied arsenal of Nerf guns and recently began to branch out into cap guns and water guns. I don’t like to buy toy guns that look too real, however, much to Eddie’s great disappointment. Mostly I worry about the ramifications if someone else were to mistake his toy for something real. I tend to encourage him to play with his “guns” in the backyard. What an appropriate piece for this time of year. It brings to mind the movie “A Christmas Story” – the story of a little boy who desperately wanted a toy gun for Christmas! I suppose this year it is all the boys who are begging for “Call of Duty” from their parents! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Reply
    • I did the same thing, and the same thing happened. Now that Sam has guns that really shoot something, he has to wear goggles, and is not allowed to shoot in most places – I don’t want anybody hurt, frightened or otherwise discommoded. Part of my argument for the idiocy of stockpiling Airsoft guns is the fact that they can’t be shot in our pretty urban yard, in any City park, on school grounds…it’s pretty limited.

      I did try “you’ll put your eye out with that thing,” but he pointed out that since I make everybody wear goggles…..

      Reply
  2. Don’t be too hard on yourself. As Elizabeth says, it is really natural for some kids. I routinely watch the “little” kids at our park carry around sticks and shoot each other. These are 3 and 4 year olds, who do not come from houses where guns are everywhere, nor do they watch movies or play video games that are violent. It just happens.

    I also started as you did with the toy guns. I gave that up by age three bc everything was a gun. Zachary has toy weapons of all sorts. Todd comes from a family that not only has guns but does an EXCELLENT job of teaching the necessary skills to use them, over YEARS of time. And yes, when he goes to Grandpas cabin in the woods, Zachary shoots bb guns and I believe a 22 now… (I cover my ears and say la la la la la and Todd and Grandpa handle that) and he shoots bow and arrow, real ones, has for years and apparently is quiet proficient at it. (again, I have never been there to witness, girls are not allowed and I’m happier for it!)

    I do have rules though and he does not watch anything PG13 or play and M for Mature games. We do have one video game that is T for teen that is a hunting game as a matter of fact. No blowing up heads etc. Not until he is old enough to buy them himself. We all have to make rules that we can live with, and occasionally compromise.

    Reply
    • It does just happen, and it’s a fairly recent thing for parents to think it’s terrible and damaging. I bet our fathers (and probably our husbands) played war and had toy guns and no one thought that they were being desensitized or encouraged to be aggressive…..

      I think the setup with Todd’s family is perfect; being taught to use weapons correctly and safely, and to respect them is often done best by people who have actual experience rather than abstract fear.

      Sam would kill for a bb gun (poor word choice?) but he does play “M” games and blow up heads. And he did pay for it himself, because I hate it. I think neither Zachary nor Sam will become a Unibomber. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Reply
      • Um, yea, me either….Zachary tends to be sensitive to movies etc and once during Indiana Jones a few years ago said, “Mom, I don’t really feel comfortable watching this”, so I turned it off, overjoyed at his maturity in the situation. So, because of how HE reacts I really don’t let him play those sort of games or watch those movies. I don’t judge those who do. My answer to all those “but so and so does it” is “well in OUR HOUSE the rule is” and they KNOW that is the end of that. We parents just need to figure it out as it comes and not be so damn hard on each other all the time!

  3. Ann,
    I have been to that cemetery in France. It was very humbling. Interesting, too, as it is considered American soil–the US Flag is flying there. I thought the Stars of David among the crosses were also intriguing. I remember being annoyed that there were little kids playing and making a lot of noise and thinking that they should be more respectful. Upon later reflection, perhaps it was OK because the soldiers died to protect a way of life and the kids were proof of their sacrifice. I still get a tight feeling in my throat when I see images of this cemetery. Thanks for posting it.

    Reply
    • It is humbling. It is sometimes hard for me to be the pacifist that I am and still feel as emotional as I do about the many people who have fought and died for us, as recently as today…..

      Reply
  4. Elizabeth Ramos

    Honestly, one of my biggest fears living here in Michigan? When Eddie is old enough to get invited out for a hunting expedition and has absolutely no experience! Because that will be his situation! And that is not good. At least Zack will be skilled, well trained, educated. We don’t go for the gory games either, but the truth is that Eddie wouldn’t anyway…he actually threw up in the orthodontist office once when he watched the instructional movie about the mouth! lol. He is truly his father’s son. Which makes it all the more interesting that Jorge is in the medical implant business. ๐Ÿ™‚ Fortunately for me, Eddie isn’t angling for the blood, guts and gore stuff yet so we have confronted that issue yet. But Ann, I think you are right, they won’t grow up to be a Unibomber or a Jeffrey Dahmer just from playing video games, let’s be real. It’s the kid who is cutting squirrels up in the yard and making bombs in the basement that’s the one to be more concerned about!

    Reply
    • I don’t know that Eddie will want to go hunting…i think Sam might like the Being with the Guys in the Woods part, but might, like my brother (who goes “hunting” with his brothers in law sometimes) not want to kill anything.

      I think we can safely include Eddie in the group of boys who are NOT torturing and dissecting animals, and who will grow up to be fairly normal. Too normal is scary, though. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Reply
  5. This is great Ann. Although I’ve loosened up on some of my previous parenting soap-boxes (read “video games”), toy guns have, until recently, remained my ‘hill to die on’ (pardon the pun). You lay out the reasons so articulately – the attempt to teach our children about the real dangers of violence and tools of such. We have spent hours discussing with Theo that war and gangs and the like are real and that indeed real people really die (in terms an 8 year old might understand).

    Then last week for his 8th birthday, Theo received not 1 but 2 toy guns (one larger than he can even really lift). As his eyes lit up, his sister, Lucy proclaims “Finally, we have a gun in the house!” Jill, I said to myself, epic fail.

    Reading your post today gave me such comfort. There is something so intriguing about these toys and games to kids (and many adults, certainly other than you and I) that perhaps I’m doing a disservice to my children to make them such taboos. It sounds as though Sam has some fantastic role models in his life that illustrate a healthy interest in guns and the related while respecting their potential for destruction. I hope my children will be able to learn the same from my family.

    Reply
    • I probably started with the same soapboxes – TV was a big one for me, but my stepdaughter came to live with us when she was Theo’s age and Sam was a baby, and she was already a serious, chain-watcher. I had to give that up, but it was hard.

      I am laughing at Lucy. That big-eyed ballerina wanted a gun in the house. ๐Ÿ™‚

      I’m glad this helped; I’ve struggled with it for a couple of years, and it’s one of those areas in which I have to balance my own feelings and choices (and the tenor of the times) against what are probably normal impulses in my kid. I think that if we keep talking about the non-fantasy side of weapons and war, and check ourselves for attempts to over-control when there is no need, we (and our kids) will be okay. I’m pretty darned sure our kids will be okay anyway.

      Reply
  6. I remember all the kids in the neighborhood playing war, and the boys would relegate the girls to being nurses. I was a spy. I recall begging my mom for one of those cap guns with the strip of paper that would fire a wonderful loud sound, being turned down, and borrowing one whenever I could from David Summitt. As far as I know, none of those boys has a violent streak today.

    I face the same dilemma with my 11 year old son. I allow the foam crossbow, but have a hard time stomaching the gun idea. He spends much time at the Renaissance Fair scoping out the weaponry, which was worrisome, I will admit.

    Thank you for the perspective. Although I may still be a doctor someday due to House’s influence. I certainly play one in my home.

    Reply
    • Actually, I was just saying to Rob that a lot of the games we played in my part of the ‘hood – hide & seek, tag, etc., were really versions of “war.” They all involved hunting or chasing people in order to “get” them in one way or another…we all turned out okay. (See, if you’d had a brother, you would have had a cap gun in the house. We always did).

      They just like weapons. Before there were guns, I’m sure they made bow-pulling and sword-wielding gestures with their eating utensils and sticks.

      You and I are already closer to being doctors because we have noth worked in medicine-related fields. (I still do, actually – do you?) Maybe one day House will make up a new team of 40-something year old women with faux credentials…..

      Reply
  7. I remember when my nephew, Sam, was little, my sister-in-law told me he had a squirt fish instead of a squirt gun…the first of her many efforts to prevent him from ever playing with a gun. I’m certain that at the first opportunity he played with guns at his friend’s houses.

    In an effort to prevent children from seeing violence or sex on-screen, they rate movies, too, but we all have snuck from the show we paid for into a different movie at some point…we see things.

    At some point, trusting in the process just makes sense…a parent guides their child (hopefully) to make good choices in life, and that child has to process on his or her own with the many influences that seep in to their consciousness, beyond prevention.

    Reply
    • That sounds about right.

      You are also right about movies; I know that I saw (and read) things that would have made my parents apoplectic, but I turned out okay. mostly.

      I read something once, written by a famous GOP speech-writer (Peggy Noonan, I think is her name), about the number of things floating around in the world to which our children are exposed. She made the point that we have to offer our own “things” to balance the random and uncontrollable input, because we really can’t prevent it from happening. It may be the only time I entirely agree with a GOP speech-writer….

      Reply
  8. Thank you for the article. I think you are exactly right. That much of a fixation on firearms just has to be in the red zone. It seems to have no reason, it is a large spanner taken to fix a small problem, it is out of place. Defending your home during a war, yes, by all means defend yourself. Hunting if required for food, yes, take a firearm that will quickly kill your dinner. These things we can understand and then do or not do ourselves. I believe that the problem stems from two places. The first is the smaller of the two in my opinion and it is that we live in a violent world where the news often reports trouble. The second is that in almost every film and computer game someone dies. Our celebrities and stars say such misleading, stupid things. I cite as an example a household-name television presenter of automobile review shows who made and published a program about firearms. He stood there, holding an AK47 assault rifle and said “What a shame it only has one purpose because it is so sexy.” With great emphasis on the last two words. That attitude is plastered throughout the media that our children watch. In my opinion he was damned fool who should have been sacked at once. The television channel should have been reprimanded severely. No. An AK47 is not ‘sexy’. It is for killing people with. He needed to be slapped round the face and told to wake up. I once went to a video store to rent a film. There were entire racks of films glorifying the use of firearms. For every music group who has their album cover printed in black and white, angry young people in some derelict dockland area, pouting and posing – there is also a film showing some foolish, highly paid actor or actress with a large handgun. So, thank you for the article. When I fix my car, I reach for a spanner, when I cut the lawn I reach for the mower. The right tool for the right job. So, if the media producers could stop their stupid representations of what firearms are then most of the time – we just don’t need them. This message needs to come from our leaders and our public citizens.

    Reply

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