When it comes to thinking about childhood toys, many people have memories of Lite-Brite, Colorforms, Garfield (the stuffed animal) and the Nerf Blaster (or Nerf gun). If somebody else had a Nerf gun, everybody would want one or at least hope to try it out. It was the coolest toy, firing foam darts, discs and even foam balls. But, out of all the toys, the Nerf gun—and toy guns in general–seem to be the most controversial of all. In the past decade or so, kids brandishing toy guns have faced the ire of people in the community, their teachers and even the police.

Scenarios of Children Playing With Guns

Scenario #1
A seven-year-old boy was suspended for 10 days after bringing two toy guns to school. He was armed with a water gun and a Nerf gun in his pocket. While it was obvious the two guns were toys, he was reprimanded. The school system where he attended elementary school has a zero tolerance policy for all weapons, and toy guns are under the same category of handguns, knives and bombs. The policy states that a 10-day suspension is mandatory, and it can also be determined that a long-term suspension or expulsion be exercised.

When the school board met with the child’s mother to hear her argument on the situation, the superintendent of schools took away the recommendation that he be expelled in the matter of a few minutes.

Rather than the child being punished, it may have served him better if the school leaders explained the rules and the reasoning behind them to the child. This may have served him better than treating him like a serious criminal. At seven-years-old, he is still developing an understanding of what is right and wrong.

A recent study brought out an interesting fact in this case and others where children are punished for having toy guns. The zero tolerance policies that have been instituted do not help with disruptive behavior.

Scenario #2
A five-year-old girl was playing with a pink Hello Kitty© bubble gun while waiting for the school bus. She pointed the toy at her friends and said she was going to shoot them—she proceeded to fire bubbles at them. Then, she said she was going to shoot herself and pointed the toy at herself, bubbles flying in her face.

The next day, the child was taken out of her class and questioned for three hours without her mother knowing. She was then suspended for 10 days for a “terroristic threat.” Her mother discussed the situation with the school administration, and the result was that the girl was suspended for two days instead of 10 for her “threat to harm others.” She was required to have a psychological evaluation, which brings with it the label of “troubled person” on her permanent record—all because she played with a pink Hello Kitty© bubble gun at school.

The Toy Gun Debate

The children in the examples and many more are enjoying the same type of play many kids did 50 and more years ago. But, people have become sensitive about firearms—and children are being punished for wielding the same types of toy guns that their grandfathers and fathers did. What was once considered boys having fun is now looked upon as “troubled children” by others.

The kids who want to have play gun fights will find ways of doing it, such as chewing toast into the shape of handguns or turning a hairbrush into a pretend gun. Many child experts say that “outlawing” toy guns gives pretend guns more power.

  • Play guns are not about hurting other people. While the toy gun play seems to be violent at first, it really is not. It is not about violence as much as it is about symbols—power, leadership, authority, strength and control. By playing with pretend guns, children have the opportunity to figure out these concepts during play.
  • Toy gun bans single out children of one gender. Girls play with magic wands to show power and control.
  • Taking away children’s toy guns has no benefit, because the pretend play has developmental value. It is the child’s way to make sense of the world in areas, such as gender roles, beginning beliefs about immorality and their own helplessness.
  • Benjamin Spock wrote “Baby and Child Care,” a child-rearing book for parents. It said not to worry if a child was “engaged in pistol play.” Spock said that by the age of six, a boy will stop pretend-shooting at others because his conscience has turned stricter.
  • Spock revised his book in 1968 with the conclusion that television violence increased cruel behavior in children and adults. He said parents should stop children’s war play or any type of playing that becomes deliberately cruel and mean. However, Spock said if an uncle gave the child a pistol, he would not have the nerve to take it away.
  • According to American Studies Professor Jay Mechling in the American Journal of Play, kids need to comprehend the difference between real and fantasy violence. They can make that distinction only if they have experiences with fantasy violence.

Ideas for Setting Boundaries

When children are playing “cops and robbers” and other role play with toy guns, it is most likely harmless. Some experts say the play has benefits, but parents can set boundaries around playing with toy guns.

  • Children should never hurt each other during toy gun wars. It is important to examine the toy guns, because toy guns and BB guns are very different. Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, reported that pellet, BB and paintball guns can fire at the same speed as regular guns. They cause 22,000 injuries annually, and most of those injuries involve the eyes.
  • Parents should make rules, including not to point or shoot at other children’s faces, family members or pets. This is important for safe imaginary play. In addition, if parents do not want to buy their children toy guns, they can let them create their own with objects found around the house.
  • It is important to watch for certain behaviors that may be a warning, such as “accidentally” hurting people or animals, as well as showing a lack of regret or concern. Any aggressive behaviors are reasons to talk with the pediatrician.
  • It is good practice to limit or cut off a child’s exposure to violent television shows and video games. By doing this, it will help to protect children from the aggressive ways they play with toy guns instead of ruling out gun play altogether. It is more important to limit or ban video games that glorify violent behavior. Research has shown that these video games result in children having reduced empathy and more aggressive behavior.
  • An Ohio State University study linked the relationship between violent video games and numbness to the suffering of others. These videos have no developmental value; however, toy gun play does.

Interesting Facts About Toy Guns

1) Guns have been made for children for more than 150 years. They were used as training tools for boys who would hunt with their fathers when they were older.

2) The Daisy air rifle was first built in 1888 and marketed to the children of farming families.

3) The earliest toy guns were intricately crafted and designed to resemble firearms. Many companies that made the firearms also produced the toy guns.

4) Toy gun sales skyrocketed after the world wars. When gangsters became the subject of movies in the 1930s, guns became the popular toy. Because of the Lone Ranger, cap gun sales broke records in the 1940s.

5) In the 1930s, there were “mothers’ movements,” where moms threw their children’s toy guns into bonfires to protest making toys that symbolized the weapons gangsters used against police. They did this, because they did not want their children to grow up to be gangsters.

Are Nerf Guns the Next Taboo?

6) Since 1955, New York City has had a ban on black, blue and silver toy guns.

7) Many towns and cities in states across the U.S. have banned all toy guns or have offered to buy toy guns back from people in the last few years.

8) The New York attorney general ordered Amazon, Wal-Mart, Sears and other stores that carried toy guns that do not have an orange stripe on the barrels to stop selling them. California followed in 2016.

9) About the orange tip on the gun—a federally funded experiment in 1989 found that when actors brandishing toy guns with the orange plug aimed at police officers, 96 percent of the officers fired at the toy guns. The conclusion: the orange tip failed to designate the guns as toys.

10) BB guns are not found in toy stores and, instead, are in sporting goods stores, because parents and politicians put the pressure on the toy companies not to sell them.

11) Toy guns plummeted in popularity in the 1970s—when the Westerns on the screen did.