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?