This worked fine with my daughter, whose make-believe play ran more to mothering stuffed animals than to shooting. But then my second child, a boy, turned 3. I suddenly noticed him running around the house, pointing his finger at objects, and making shooting noises. I don't even know where this came from--we owned no video games, and he was not allowed to watch violent cartoons.
Over time, he discovered a remarkable ability to turn common household objects into make-believe weapons. The tripod for my camera became anti-aircraft artillery, which he would fire from the foot of his bed. He hid behind stacks of pillows, shooting imaginary enemies with rifles built from wrapping paper tubes. He would balance an ordinary highlighter on top of his fist for a pistol and even cock it by moving the highlighter back and forth.
I was surprised by how often he chose to create war scenarios in his play, but ever the proud mother, I was impressed with his creativity and even took a few photos of him involved in his imaginary world.
I still refused to buy him a toy gun, despite his frequent requests. But for his sixth birthday, he received a toy from a friend that straddled the line between fantasy figure and "shooter"--a creature that shot Nerf pellets from its tail. The mother acknowledged that I might be concerned about a toy weapon but had noticed that the boys shot at everything anyway. I let him keep it. It was his favorite gift that year.
Gradually I was forced to reexamine my entire position involving guns. I came to recognize that my true goal was to raise adults who would be against gun violence and would have no interest in owning or shooting guns.
At age 9, my son has now accumulated a variety of toy weapons, including some he's built himself from Legos. We have ground rules:
He seems to have evolved some rules of his own as well. I see that his play largely revolves around fighting "enemies." There is never an identified person as the enemy. He never talks about having power, killing animals, or anything else I would view as a danger sign. He appears naturally to have adopted the military model for weapons, meaning that weapons are to be used only in certain circumstances--a line that civilized humans never cross.
I expect his interest in these toys to fade over the next couple of years as sports become more important to him. In the meantime, he's never given me reason to regret my change of heart.