Thursday, January 07, 2016

Fired Up About Toys

by Lisa McElroy

Last fall, I joined a camping group of about 6000 women who live across the country.  The members meet up at campgrounds and in state parks; they hike and glamp.  Most of them work in the service industry, if they work outside the home.  Many are devoutly Christian.

And lots and lots of them are members of the NRA.

As in, they have NRA stickers on and gun racks in their trucks.

When I first got involved with this group, I was struck by how different these women were from me, but I saw that as a good thing.  After all, as Justice Thomas told me recently, “There’s nothing more democratic than camping.”  And I still believe that difference is a really good thing – it was important to me to break out of my ivory tower, in which all of my friends had gone to graduate school and most parents abandoned traditional gender roles.  Meeting people from different walks of life was enriching and educational – not to mention just plain fun (these women know how to camp!).

But I dropped out of the camping group when more and more of the members started posting photos on Facebook of the animals they’d killed or the weapons they’d gotten as birthday gifts.  It was just too upsetting, in the wake of Newtown and San Bernadino and Virginia Tech.  I wanted to avoid guns, and I wanted to be able to tell my children that I had nothing to do with them.

But then I felt like a hypocrite.

I remember when my daughters were toddlers.  We lived in the Boston suburbs at the time, and most of our friends were like us:  white, liberal, anti-gun.  On the Fourth of July, we had a huge party in our yard.  It was extremely hot that summer, and my husband broke out some water pistols for the kids.  All of the kids had a great time squirting each other, and we parents had to deal with a lot less whining and prickly heat rash.

But the day after the party, one of the other moms called me.  “I just wanted to tell you,” she said.  “A bunch of the parents are talking about you.  They are upset that you had water pistols at the party. This is a community where that doesn’t go over well.”

I was horribly offended.  These people had accepted an invitation to my home.  They’d sat in my yard and celebrated our country.  But then they were gossiping behind my back about something harmless?  They could take their gossip and get out of my yard.  If I’d been a gun-toting type, I would have stood at the edge of my property with a gun to keep them off.

As my kids got older, though, I sort of joined the “no gun toys, ever” and “not even crackers if they’re shaped like guns” posse.  Gun violence was all too real in our country, I thought, and I didn’t want my kids to think that guns were play things.  In fact, I thought, if they “shot” fake guns with impunity, they might not realize the effect that shooting a real gun might have.  And I worried about associating with people with guns. What if we went to their homes and my kids saw their guns?  What if my daughters were frightened, or tempted to take one and try it out?

When Heller was decided, I was horrified.  A Supreme Court decision that individuals had a right to bear arms was so permanent, I thought.  We couldn’t change that with a different Congress, or, even, in the short term, with a different President.

We couldn’t even really change it with our current President.

Earlier this week, when President Obama stood at a podium and cried about gun violence in our country, I rejoiced, even as I recognized that Heller limited what he could do.  The government was doing something.  Maybe not much, maybe not enough, but something.  The message would get out. Criminals would have less access to guns.  As the President said, we couldn’t stop all gun violence, but if we could stop some, legal regulations would be worth it.

And then, that afternoon, as I drove to pick my daughter up from our award-winning, mostly white, upper middle class public high school, I saw it. Two teenage girls, walking down the street, holding colorful plastic toy machine guns.  They were pointing them at cars and shouting, “Boom!”  And I just didn’t know how to react.

I didn’t want to be “that” mom, the mom who called me up to tell me that I shouldn’t have toy guns at my house, or at least at my party.  The girls were walking down the street – they weren’t doing anything illegal.  But they were being, in my view, incredibly stupid.  More than that, they being disrespectful, of Tamir Rice and Andy Lopez and Jamar Nicholson, all children shot by the police after officers claimed to feel threatened by toy guns.  And, perhaps most importantly, they were potentially putting themselves in danger.  In today’s world, we know, you just can’t point a toy gun at someone and pretend to shoot.  You stand a pretty decent chance of getting shot yourself.

I didn’t know what to do.  Should I pull over and talk to the girls?  Should I call the police?  Should I just ignore it?

After I picked up my daughter and brought her home, I put the question out to my Facebook friends.  “What should I have done?” I asked.  One friend responded, sort of in jest, “Buy them a ticket to Oregon.”  Two asked, “I assume they were white? Because otherwise they’d be dead by now.” Another said, “Do nothing!  They’re toys.  NBD.”  A friend in Seattle wrote, “ I'd be seriously tempted to stop and have a talk about how their "game" might feel for veterans with PTSD or, indeed, anyone on edge because of America's escalating gun violence.” And an Arizona friend wrote, “ I take a very dim view of pointing a gun at someone - any kind of gun. Our fridge top was the resting place of numerous toy guns, including sticks, which had been pointed at me, a dog, or playmate, whether in play or jest. Our son warned his friends, ‘Look out, my mom is mean!’ Yep, I was, am hard core on that issue. We raised two kids who are responsible gun owners and know where their shotguns are pointing.”

So.  Yes, the girls were white.  Yes, I’m sure the guns were toys.  No, I didn’t see any cars crash from or people freak out over the incident.  But did I have a responsibility to say something?  Even my Arizona friend who taught her kids to use guns was against gun play.

I’m still not sure.  But I’m afraid, every day, afraid that one day I’ll have to turn on the television and see our President in tears over a shooting at my kids’ school, or a police overreaction in my town. And perhaps the responsibility lies with me, as a parent and a community member, to teach all kids, not just my own, about the very real tragedy that is gun violence.

Or maybe my responsibility is to let others make their own choices. I don’t have to be involved, but I don’t have to interfere or judge, either.

What do you think?


Anonymous said...

Indeed, it is the role of parents is very influential on the psychological development of children. we can not stay silent about the violence that exist in the environment all around us let alone to affect the condition of our children. Should we keep and supervise our children from bad neighborhoods . Thank you

Joe said...

Well, the animals killed thing is separate from water pistols.

As to the other examples, I understand some of them, but as a complete thing, doesn't work for me personally. For instance, does this mean playing with phasers is unacceptable? Paintball? If water pistols are too much -- I sort of get that, but where is the line? Supersoakers okay? Or, are they like assault weapons? -- where is the limit? But, maybe a total no tolerance policy is the only way? After all, working by installments in respect to animal rights has been criticized by at least two contributors here. Perhaps, it is all/nothing for guns too.

Michael C. Dorf said...

Joe: Just to be clear, Sherry and I do not oppose "working by installments" nor do we favor only of "all or nothing" approaches. We have, however, raised questions about approaches that seek incremental reforms that draw distinctions that are fundamentally inconsistent with our beliefs and that risk being counter-productive. The forthcoming book makes the point. We will also be speaking on Saturday at a panel at the Association of American Law Schools conference in NYC in which we will draw that distinction.

Joe said...

I appreciate the caveat but criticism is not an all/nothing affair either. Plus, the "draw distinctions" qualifier alone is a major one to me since lots of installments in movements to fight wrongs involved temporarily accepting in some sense things deemed wrong in the promotion of lesser evils. The counter-productive point is a fact based one and basically disagree with you and Prof. Colb on certain matters there including comparing them to other fights over the centuries. I said more in specific past threads.

Anonymous said...

So what we have here is a person who has left the ivory tower behaviorally, a person who has left the ivory tower intellectually, yet a person who stubbornly refuses to leave the ivory tower emotionally. As far as I can tell she shared the same space with the people from the NRA but never connected with them emphatically--never tried to understand why they feel the way they do. Indeed, the author's own sympathy seems to have been directly attacking any attempts at empthay.

This is one of the ironies of academic-based liberal sympathy. When closely examined it turns out to be something quite ugly and anti-social. They identify more with the struggles of a dying animals than they do with the struggles of living humans--"sympatico for me but not with thee".

What do I think? I honestly think the post is reflective of someone who has become overweened on life. I keep coming back to Patrick Henry, "is life so sweet, or peace so dear, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?" The answer to that interrogatory appears to be--in this upper middle class neighborhood--a resounding, unstinting, unqualified...YES.

CJColucci said...

I subscribe to the seemingly old-fashioned view that certain things are none of my business. Imagine how you would feel if some stranger stopped your kids in the middle of a public sidewalk to give them his or her personal, if idiosyncratic and disputable, views on appropriate play.

Joseph said...

When one has little exposure to something, that thing can be scary. I know people who grew up without pets and are unreasonably afraid of the smallest fluffiest dog who passes on the street. And there is also a debate concerning certain breeds of dogs. Those who are accustomed to firearms express a healthy fear of guns. That fear does not include trembling at the mere sight of one - let alone a toy one easily recognizes as posing no danger. Aside from banning practically all ownership of firearms, what does one do with this irrational fear?

I did not grow up around guns. I get the fear that comes with seeing one. Yet, that apprehension does not extend to an emotional impulse to ban them. Is it a robust appreciation for freedom that tempers my fear of guns? The persuasion of conservative politics, to which I feel a natural inclination? Conversely, does swimming in liberal politics heighten the anxiety? I think the answer to these questions is yes.

I once sought to pet a rottweiler. In no uncertain terms, the dog let me know my affection was unappreciated. After releasing my hand, we dissolved our union as amicably as anyone could. In this case, the dog was a stickler for consent, which I respect. I wouldn't begrudge anyone a rottweiler or pitbull, although cognizant of the risks (which I understand are contested by some). I do expect responsibility from their humans. I don't harbor any extra fear of rottweilers, although I'd be less eager to pet one on the street.

I appreciate the sensitivity to the views of others and to recent events, but it is unfortunate for that sensitivity to melt into pure anxiety.

Joe said...

How about this for strange.

My local paper had a cover supportive of Obama's announcement and their editors strongly called out Republican candidates for opposing it. And, what was on the letters to the editors page? A letter from a parent entitled "A proud mom and her deerslayer" with a photo of the young boy with his kills! Not a rural paper either.

Greg said...

First, lest I be misunderstood, I am no lover of guns. I don't own a gun, I have never owned a gun. None of my close friends own a gun, although I know people who do. My father claims that he owns a gun, but I have never seen it in my entire life. I have fired a gun a few times on scouting trips in my youth.

Toy guns are not real guns, and should not be thought of as such. When you pick up a real gun, it feels nothing like a toy gun. Real guns are made of metal. They're heavy. If well maintained they will have a faint smell of oil, and if well loved sometimes a faint smell of gunpowder. Considering the weight, they usually don't fit nearly as well in the hand as you would expect. When you hold one, the feel is much more like that of a good heavy shovel, not a light ball. It screams TOOL, not toy.

Most children, if only exposed to toy guns will have the same reaction when holding a real gun: they're nervous or scared, even if they don't admit it. They virtually always have a healthy respect for the gun and the danger it represents. Thus, I don't think that playing with toy guns represents any real risk that a child will have an unhealthy relationship with real guns. It usually takes conditioning (more common) or a certain personality (less common) for a person to develop the kind of flippant attitude about firearms and firearm safety that many gun-loving adults seem to have.

Ignoring the racial issues (which are real, but not the focus here) there are appropriate measures that should be taken to avoid some of the dangers with toy guns. The most important one is that toy guns should look nothing like real guns. It sounds like the toy gun used by the girls you describe was clearly not real due to the color. Don't underestimate this important safety feature in preventing unnecessary police reactions to toy guns. Many of the fatal police shootings involving toy guns have been for guns that looked like real guns.

As for being disrespectful of victims of violence, most children who play with toy guns are too young to understand the larger role of gun violence in society. Role play involving toy guns, while it may seem flippant to an adult, can actually teach about life and death in a society that has largely isolated ourselves from visible aspects of death.

There are real gun problems in this country. People (some of them, unfortunately, police officers) handle their guns in ways that truly put me and my children at risk. Campus carry in Texas is an example of a truly dangerous gun policy, as if anyone in a dorm handles their firearm in an unsafe manner, it endangers everyone in the building. There seems to be some evidence that guns on campus are already being used to threaten teachers and fellow students. These kinds of things need to be fought.

A few kids on the street playing with a toy gun that is obviously a toy? Barring any unmentioned circumstances, they weren't endangering you or themselves. There was no reason to intervene. You might not choose to allow that type of play for your children, but I would have no problem with it for mine.

Now, if my child came home with a real gun, or handled a real gun unsafely? You can bet they would get an earful.

BTW, there are 2-3 rules of gun safety that all children should know:
1.) NEVER point a gun at a person or other living thing. [For adults: unless your intention is literally to fire it at them and kill them.]
2.) ALWAYS treat a gun like it is loaded, even if you KNOW that it isn't.

and, for younger children:

3.) If you see a gun that you think might be real, leave it there, DON'T TOUCH IT, and tell an adult.

There are a number of other rules that apply if a child will be exposed to guns, but those rules are the minimum knowledge for a child who is unlikely to encounter a real gun, in order to keep them safe should they happen to.