My 20-month-old whines. He wants the all-metal, theoretically-shoots-caps, realistic Cowboy Gun that his two brothers are playing with. They pull the trigger, and metal clunks satisfyingly. They point it at imaginary bad guys. They point it at the wall. They point it at each other. They wear it in a cheap holster and take it into battle.
Five years ago, I never would have allowed it. I am virulently anti-gun; I think handguns should be illegal. I swore my kids would never play with guns, especially handguns, because their only purpose is to kill other people. Playing with guns only taught kids that guns are good, and that played right into the hands of the NRA. Gunplay also taught kids that you should point one at someone and pull the trigger, which is how toddlers end up shooting their little brothers. Guns were all-around bad, and I had to keep them away from my kids.
The slow slide started with Star Wars. My husband put it on for our oldest when he was three. Suddenly, there was such a thing as a “blaster.” And since he didn’t have a blaster, he began building them out of Duplos. These Duplo blasters got carried all over the house and shattered, leaving Duplos everywhere.
When he was outside, he found r-shaped sticks and pointed them at people. “Pew, pew, pew,” he said, in the somehow instinctual space-gun noise. Some of the stick blasters were small. Some of them were huge. Almost universally, he tried to keep them, bringing them into the car and stashing them in his seat.
OK, I said. This is a losing battle. He’d make a gun out of his fingers if I kept taking the others from him. He could play blasters, I decided – it was important to call them “blasters,” not guns. But no pointing them at real people. Only at imaginary bad guys. My mom BFF made the same ruling at about the same time, and we spent many playdates ordering our sons to shoot their (elaborate) Duplo blasters not at each other, but at “imaginary bad guys.” “You can’t shoot your friends,” I said. “We don’t point blasters at people.”
We knew that upstairs, away from prying parental eyes, they were pointing guns at each other.
We said, over and over, that we don’t point blasters at people. At some point, we slid into the word “gun.” “No guns pointed at people!” I said again, and again, and again. And my mom BFF said it again, and again, and again.
We never discussed it. We never had the conversation. But slowly, we just gave up. So now our sons were running around, making guns and pewing at each other. They made them out of Duplos. They made them out of sticks. They made them out of swords, and they made them out of random toys, and with every single one, they pointed at each other and said “pew.”
It was a slow slide, then, to my son actually owning his own blaster. It was a blaster, I emphasized again, rounded and chubby and almost cute. It had a real trigger, though, and made an indiscriminate space gun noise when you pulled it. It lit up. He prized it above all his toys. And since it was a reward for something or other, I couldn’t do much but call it a blaster.
And once we had one, the floodgates opened. The light-up space guns multiplied like sequels to a bad sci-fi movie. My oldest was now almost five. His little brother, aged three, wanted his own blaster. Then they wanted another blaster. This blaster was on sale, and lit up. It was the summer, and they wanted water pistols – to shoot each other, of course. Every pretend game involved pretend guns. They lived in the weaponry box with the swords.
But I stayed away from anything realistic. I held firm. No way was any realistic-looking gun getting into my house. They might have a box full of blasters, but they didn’t have anything you could directly point to and call a gun.
Until the day my 3-year-old got a reward for pooping on the potty. We happened to be in Ye Old Country Store, and I realized we could convince our son to get a potty reward here, instead of having to drive to Target. He pointed to a cowboy cap gun. I knew that he’d been eyeing a $30 dino at Target; I had nothing in my mind but price as I let him carry the gun to the cash register. He loved it. He opened it in the car. And just like that, we had a bonafide toy gun in the house.
I still feel ambivalent about it. I don’t love all the gunplay and the pewing. But mostly, they don’t shoot each other; they truly do shoot imaginary bad guys. We had a talk about what to do if you find a real gun. I’m still rabidly in favor of gun control. But I realized that sometimes, our parenting doesn’t match our politics. We can’t always be perfect. And once in a while, that means your kids are shooting at each other.
And that’s OK.