Why I can't let my boys play with guns any more

OPINION

As the fallout of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre continues to fill the news, I question whether it is OK for my boys aged seven and five to play with toy guns.

The simple answer is no. It is not OK. But is it quite so straightforward?

In the light of the killings in Newtown, Connecticut, it is easy to say that there could be no more inappropriate sight than watching children play in the streets with toy guns, pretending to shoot each other.

I grew up playing with toy guns. I imagine the majority of boys around the world were doing the same. You could buy plastic guns with the sheriff badge, plastic rifles that could be locked and loaded, and cap guns with red circular plastic rounds that made a popping noise. There were metal cap guns, spud guns that fired bits of potato and guns that produced sparks when you shot them.

These toys, and many more, are still available. There are even specific websites for buying toy guns for children.

Toy guns that fire foam bullets are all the rage at the moment. My boys would love one. To be honest, so would I. They look great. So much fun. As a young boy my friends and I chased each other with toy guns around the streets. We played cowboys and Indians. We pretended to shoot each other. We copied action heroes. We played cops and robbers.

Violence on TV is much more graphic these days. But the essence of good versus evil is still there. Is it wrong for my boys to want to run around the garden shooting each other, pretending to be the hero and saviour of the world? Not only is violence in their faces all day, every day, but it is an inherent male characteristic: the hunter and gatherer, the provider. It feels wrong to let my boys play with guns today. But will it next month?

The 1950s and '60s were a time for cowboys and Indians. John Wayne was the hero of The Searchers and The Alamo.

The '70s saw Dirty Harry, Kojak and Hawaii Five-0 shoot the screen up and kill the bad guys. The '80s had Cagney and Lacey, Chips, Magnum and Miami Vice patrolling the streets, shooting down drug lords.

The '90s saw Rambo and the Terminator compete for body counts. Children continued to copy their moves.

Laser tag and paintballing have become popular pastimes, all with the aim of 'killing' each other. Shooting is an Olympic sport. Legal hunting occurs all over the world.

I don't think I will ever go so far as to ban toy guns from the house. But I will never buy my boys a toy gun and I will discourage them from playing with them. And explain the reasons why. The toy gun that came into my house last week, given to my youngest by a neighbour, has discreetly found its way to the bin. So far that has gone unnoticed.

If I had the choice between buying a water gun/pistol or one of those popular water soakers, I would choose the soaker. Am I taking it too far? If I think about it, the reason I would buy the soaker is out of respect for the children killed and their grieving families - strange as that may sound.

Guns in all shapes and sizes are here to stay. There is nothing that we can do about it. We will never remove guns from society. It is simply an impossibility. No matter how ideological we want to be.

The answer in my opinion is education. We need to be educated and we need to educate on guns. Just like smoking, drink-driving, drugs and random violence, guns needs to be made socially unacceptable. The power of your peers is far stronger than the will of a government.

Most people value the opinions of others and crave acceptance in one form or another. Make it socially unacceptable to own a gun.

We may be a generation or two away from guns being considered as socially unacceptable as smoking. But we can learn from the strategies used to change the perception of smoking.

To fly a plane, drive a long-haul semi-trailer, pilot a cruise ship or drive a car you legally require formal training. You have to undergo rigorous tests. For some craft you even need training and psychological evaluations. Then you need to sit a series of tests before getting a licence. Yet in America, you can walk into a supermarket and buy a gun with your bread and milk.

Once, I might have been happy to buy my boys toy guns, after all I played with them as a youngster. But in light of the unimaginable horror at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I wouldn't feel comfortable doing that any more. Simply because of the message it would send.

Rob Harris is a freelance writer.

smh.com.au

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