He had engineered some plastic blocks into an L. Then with 3-year-old bravado, he announced, "This is a gun!"
All my mothering alarms went into high alert. This was a key parenting moment, and I needed to get it right. "No, it's not a gun," I said.
He thought for half a second. "This is a pretend gun."
I wanted to say again, "No, it's not." Meaning, "No, I don't want it to be." But I stopped myself. Whatever I want or don't want, if it's a pretend gun to him, then it's a pretend gun.
"O," I said. "But listen. I don't want you to play with guns. Not even pretend play." Then, in the simplest terms I could find, I explained what suddenly became clear to me about my feelings about toy guns. I explained that real guns are very dangerous. They can hurt people very, very badly. So badly they might die. And the main reason guns are made is to hurt people. It's wrong to hurt people, and I didn't like him to even pretend to hurt people. That wasn't nice.
He listened. He considered. "You don't like guns?" he asked. "No," I said. Then, with that mix of candor and contrariness that defines his age, he declared, "But I like guns."
I can't say that I was shocked. But I knew at that moment how strongly I felt about this issue. If only "it's wrong to hurt people" were all there was to it. I had left out the part about kids who have been shot by cops or others because they thought the toy gun in the young person's hand was real. I left out the part about kids who shoot themselves or each other when they find a gun by accident at home. Or shoot each other on purpose in school. I left out the part about children in other places (even in our city) toting real guns, recruited into adult games that are deadly real, and how I felt his play would dishonor their misused innocence.
And I left out the part about how I had held a gun, and shot a gun, myself.
There were tin cans and, I think, paper bull's-eye targets. I remember my sister and me being the only girls. I remember how hard it was to heft the rifle tip up to level and try to take aim through the sight. I remember what care my father took to explain how not to jerk the trigger but to gently ease it, ease it back. He held his arms around me and brought his head down near mine, and it was the closest thing to a hug I'd gotten from him in years. Then there was the deafening crack, the hammer blow to my shoulder, the smell of burning metal. And a dizzying rush of adrenaline as I caught my breath. I don't remember what happened to the tin can. But I had never before felt this kind of excitement. It was an excitement shot through with terror, exhilaration, shock, and a kind of reckless power. Who had known I could do that? I hadn't known. What else could I do?
But after only a few rounds, I was ready to go home. I never held a rifle again. Since then, I think I have only rarely held even a water pistol or a laser gun at an amusement arcade. I just don't like the feeling. And I don't like how the other people around me, especially the guys, get into it. What fantasy are they playing out? What aggressions are they giving outlet to between drags on their Slushies? Or, is it, as for that 12-year-old girl a few decades ago, the only time they feel that much power and control?
I should have had more chances to feel that adrenaline flow of empowerment when I was a girl. And today's children--and adults--should have more chances now. But for my son, as long as I have any say in it, the answer is not going to be playing with toy guns.
That day, happily, my son was willing to adapt his pretend gun into a pretend space shuttle that shot out fire, "because fire can help people," we agreed, "not just hurt them." Later, it wasn't easy when his older cousin brought a giant water gun along on a family vacation. I called on every child-raising skill I could muster--empathy ("I know you really want to play with it, and it's hard when I tell you you can't"); reminding about the rule ("In this family, we don't play with toy guns"); and old-fashioned distraction ("Let's pour out this bucket instead!"). We got through another key parenting moment in one piece, and in peace.