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Very Real

This Study Says Toy Guns Are Fine For Kids—But Are They Really?


A recent study says playing with toy guns could actually be beneficial to kids. Many disagree.

By Jennifer Boeder

The Toy Gun debate: Would you let your kids play with them?

With mass shootings daily and 33,000 gun deaths annually in the U.S., some parents might even prefer their kids play with matches than toy guns. Firearms are now the third-leading cause of death among U.S. children aged 17 and younger, and parents worry that toy guns glamorize firearms and desensitize kids to violence. But research actually shows gunplay in childhood has no connection to violence in adulthood, including this recently published study in the journal Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health.

Involvement in imaginative play with toy gun use in early childhood is unlikely to be useful as a risk marker for later criminal behaviour. Play fighting and war toy games may even be considered necessary components within the frame of normal development.

“There's no scientific evidence suggesting that playing war games in childhood leads to real-life aggression,” says child psychologist Michael Thompson.

In communities that have been devastated by gun violence, toy guns are no joke: they’ve been banned in Chicago, where Amazon is not even permitted to ship toy guns. New York City has had a ban on realistic-looking toy guns since 1955. American police officers shot and killed 28 people holding BB or pellet guns in 2015 alone. From 2014-2016, 86 people were killed by police for brandishing fake guns. And bans on toy guns have only gained support in the wake of police shootings of children like Tamir Rice and Tyre King. Decisions about whether to let kids to play with guns have a racial element: hunter and gun owner Barbara Beckwith noted this disparity as she watched her grandsons play with pistols in the yard.

I knew that their guns wouldn’t be mistaken for real: My grandsons are oblivious to their white privilege, which starts with the freedom as kids to brandish fake weapons and pretend to kill each other, with no dire consequences.

But even if parents ban toy guns, shooter video games like "Call of Duty," "Grand Theft Auto," and "Kill Zone" are omnipresent. Is laser tag allowed? What about paintball or water pistols? Where are parents supposed to draw the line?

Some parents just want nothing to do with gun culture on principle, and say that with the plethora of toys available for children, there’s no reason to choose a replica of a weapon designed to kill.

Toronto writer Kevin Naulls recalls his horror upon discovering at a playdate that his host had toy guns galore. He strongly objected when his four-year-old pretended to shoot and kill him, but his protest didn’t go over well with the other parents:

One of the mothers told me that “at this age, everything is a gun.” I said that wasn’t true, that even if a kid could turn a stuffed bear into an imaginary gun, a stuffed bear wasn’t a shockingly real-looking toy weapon that is manufactured to look like the same tools used to massacre people in churches, at concerts and in Sandy Hook.

But other parents—even left-wing parents who listen to NPR and consider the NRA a terrorist organization—say toy guns are harmless, and even argue they can be beneficial for kids. Aggression is part of childhood play, and some research indicates that kids who are allowed to release aggression through play are actually better able to self-regulate. Treating toy guns as illicit and dangerous can backfire, because humans are wired to want what they can’t have. So if you’re uncomfortable with your kid playing with guns, maybe don’t treat them like they’re the forbidden fruit.

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(Photo: baobao ou/Getty Images)