We know that boys engage in more rough-and-tumble play than girls, and that has a biological component. Girls engage in it, too, but not as much or with as much intensity. While there may be a biological proclivity to energetic, forceful play, the form that it takes is cultural. Guns are a modern, western-industrialized image. In places where there's social interest in guns, you see boys playing with guns instead of sticks and stones.
Do you see any problems with this kind of play?
In the ideal world, would we want boys to play with guns? No. Do real boys in the real world play with guns? Yes, unless we are incredibly vigilant or even repressive in stopping them. We have to be careful in how we deal with boys on this issue. The last thing you want to do is shame your child--because that leads boys to mask their feelings and act with false bravado. Shaming makes boys more aggressive, not less. Pretend play is healthy, not harmful, and playing with toy guns is no predictor of future violent behavior.
What about parents who really can't bear watching their kids play with guns?
The last thing you want to be is restrictive and controlling--you don't want to aggressively dominate your boy into not having guns. Boys need to be involved in the decision as much as possible. We want them to carry a caring image of us inside them, of being thoughtful, having a conscience, and caring about people's pain--which is more important than having a cap pistol when they were 5.
You can say, "I personally don't like guns very much, but I see you're having fun. I hope it doesn't come from hurting anybody." Explain that there are real guns that hurt people, and that it's a terrible thing. Don't just say, "Be nice." Boys are interested in justice, quest, and activity, so redirect them into energetic pursuits that use those interests.
I think buying a toy that looks like a real gun is unnecessary. A child doesn't need a gun that looks like an Uzi or a machine gun. Parents can vote with their pocketbooks and refuse to get realistic guns. Up to preteen, kids don't realize the implications of what real guns do, so it's important to talk to them about it.
Are there any danger signals that play is too real?
If a child is obsessed with death and killing--or seems numb to them, as if they don't mean anything--those are warning signs. That doesn't mean toy guns are bad per se, but that something deeper is going on within that child. You want to get to the pain behind the behavior.