Why We Don’t Talk About the (Toy) Guns in Our House

On four-year-olds and firearms (which should never be mentioned in the same sentence).

Parenting, in my admittedly limited four-year experience, is an ongoing exercise in doing things it never occurred to you that you’d be doing: developing a surprisingly epic mental taxonomy of Things That Can Stain Other Things, discovering the limitations of your own knowledge after the twenty-seventh consecutive “but WHY?,” and wondering how many times you can listen to “Baby Shark” before you incur brain damage. But in the pantheon of things I never thought I’d be doing, this ranks pretty high: I sent the following email a couple of weeks ago to my four-year-old son’s principal:

Ford has spent the summer going to splash pads and has amassed a bunch of squirt guns as a result. He also got a Nerf gun from another child for his birthday, and because he loves them (and water parks, and splash pads) he has taken to telling complete strangers enthusiastically, “I have a lot of guns at home!” And then, of course, we have to explain. I thought I should mention, so no one’s freaked out when Ford inevitably wants to talk about his “favorite gun,” (which is purple and shaped like a llama).

We do not have real guns at home, nor would we. And while I hope my son develops a new favorite toy very very soon, I also don’t think it’s appropriate to convey the full horror of what real guns do at his age. But this is where we are. We live in a political and cultural environment where I have to send this email so nobody freaks out when my adorable, sweet, funny, empathetic kid talks about his toy guns.

Because I wouldn’t blame anybody if they did. School shootings are so commonplace now that active shooter drills are routine nearly everywhere, and companies selling bulletproof backpacks are profitable and growing. That was not the case when I entered preschool three-plus decades ago.

And we really did have guns at home. I grew up in a rural part of Alabama where nearly everyone has guns, and in a family full of avid hunters. Guns are not exotic objects to me.

I talk about this routinely with one of my younger brothers, who sells wine now, but used to sell guns for a gun company. He argues for responsible usage and I argue that a lot of what’s in the marketplace shouldn’t be there in the first place. (No one needs an AR-15 to hunt deer, and if they do, they’re a terrible hunter).

We live in a political and cultural environment where I have to send this email so nobody freaks out when my adorable, sweet, funny, empathetic kid talks about his toy guns.

The AR-15 was originally designed for military usage — it’s explicitly designed to kill humans — and when gun aficionados insist it’s not military-grade weaponry because it’s not currently being used by the military, they’re correct only in the sense that it’s been retired for armaments that are more powerful and efficient. And if history is any indication, those will likely be adapted for civilian use at some point.

I worked at the local Walmart in high school, as a cashier. You could buy an AR-15 there with, as far as I could tell, little to no paperwork. And when another of my younger brothers, who died a few years ago, was able to buy one there despite having some things on his record that should have made him ineligible, we only realized it when my dad found the gun under my brother’s bed. 

It was like finding an unexploded bomb in the house. Possibly inert, but maybe not. And there’s no way to really remove the potential danger, except to remove the bomb itself.

My late brother Philip was also a veteran — he had served in the Navy — and at his funeral, a couple of active-duty service members presented a flag to our mother. Taps played. It was a sunny but chilly day in February.

I was six months pregnant with Ford, and Philip had been excited about it. Ford would be his first-ever nephew. I had last seen him in November, at Thanksgiving, when I was too nauseated to choke down any turkey, and he had been in a good mood. When we were kids, he was charismatic and boisterous, full of adventure. He was good-looking, athletic, and embraced his interests full-bore with an enthusiasm and intensity that bordered on obsession.

In his adult life, things had been difficult. He struggled with addiction and mental illness (he was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his 20s), and while he had good days, his decline made me think very hard about whether I wanted kids. Philip and I were not genetically related (I was adopted) but I didn’t know if I could handle, as a parent, what was happening with my brother if it were to happen to us.

But I did have a kid, because I wanted to be a parent, and ultimately, there’s no way to fully eliminate the risk of something terrible happening to your child. 

Except when there is. At the risk of oversimplification, you can’t have a mass shooting if the shooter can’t access a gun. 

I sent that email to my kid’s principal and then forgot about it for a few days, but the more distance I got from it, the more I became angry that I had to send it in the first place. At some point, my child will have to do an active shooter drill in school because there’s some non-zero possibility that someone with access to a high-powered firearm could enter his school and try to shoot students and teachers. I can’t be more granular in my description of that scenario because thinking about it enrages me. 

And the process of preparing for this possibility via drills will create some trauma for my child by itself. How are children supposed to learn and thrive if we’re routinely reminding them that they’re not safe in school?

How are children supposed to learn and thrive if we’re routinely reminding them that they’re not safe in school?

I worry less about this sort of thing happening where we live now because we’re in an area with strict gun control laws and it’s not really culturally acceptable to have a gun outside of law enforcement — and if you have one, you don’t brag about it and wave it around, which is not uncommon behavior where I grew up. In my part of Alabama, a lot of people view open carry as a kind of status symbol. (And it goes without saying that the people who are the most blatant about this are precisely the people that probably shouldn’t have a firearm in the first place. Some of those people are even related to me).

But that’s not to say that I don’t worry about it at all, and the idea that I’m going to have to prepare my child for active shooter drills and the possibility that someone might try to harm him, when all he should be worried about is whether it’s his turn to bring something for show-and-tell (he thinks it’s always his turn) and how many vegetables we’re going to subject him to at lunch, is devastating to me. My son is adventurous and brave, and marched into school on the first day of preschool, directly past an assortment of other kids in various stages of being extracted from their parents’ arms, because like me at that age, they had a lot of anxiety about school and were not thrilled to be there. But he also has normal kid fears, and his imagination features as many ghosts and monsters as it does unlimited treats and toys. It angers me that he’s going to be exposed to this legitimately real and scary and dangerous thing simply because some adults in this country insist that their recreational acquisition of weapons of war is legitimate and more important than whether America’s kids feel safe going to school. It’s preposterous and selfish and no other developed country in the world has this problem.

So when the time comes to prepare my son for this, I’m not sure what I’m going to say that will reassure him that he is safe, when the drills themselves imply to him that he is not. He is resilient and smart and sometimes I can see glimpses of what he’ll be like when he’s older. And when he latches onto something new with bottomless reserves of enthusiasm (it’s toy guns this month, but last month it was “bugs!,” which in his mind also means snakes and lizards), he reminds me a bit of my brother Philip in the earlier days, when he was thriving and full of zeal for every new thing he countered. My son’s middle name is Philip — to honor the memory of that.

So I think about what I can do, especially as a working mother for whom these anxieties are compounded by garden-variety, working-parent guilt. We don’t have guns ourselves and we try to steer our child clear of media that glorifies guns. In my professional life as a political consultant, I support and work with candidates who back strong gun control policies. And it’s a tiny thing, but when my kid has earned a trip to the toy store and he beelines for the guns, I tell him we have “enough guns at home” (ugh), and offer alternatives. Crayons. Play-Doh. Some unidentifiable character from Minecraft that will be forgotten about in three days and relegated to the bottom of the toy bin for all of eternity. A few weeks ago, he bypassed the guns and picked out a dinosaur.

And for what it’s worth, I’m totally fine with him telling people we have a lot of dinosaurs in the house.

Elizabeth Spiers is the founder of The Insurrection, a progressive strategy and polling firm. She is the former editor in chief of The New York Observer, and much further back (when she was a baby, really), the founding editor of Gawker.