Troubled by toy guns

Toy air gun
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For weeks now, my 12-year-old son has been working on his Christmas wish list. The kid who seems never to be able to find information on the Internet when he's writing a school report can suddenly find all kinds of details about cellphones and sneakers.

As parents, we're often torn between our wish to give our kids what they want and our judgment about whether those gifts might be harmful.


A recent debate in California illustrates the point. In October, police in Sonoma County fatally shot a 13-year-old boy who was carrying a real-looking air gun. Now some lawmakers want to outlaw toy guns that look like real ones.

This debate about kids and guns is an old one, and I don't have any easy answers. I grew up in rural Virginia where boys didn't get toy guns for Christmas — they got real ones. My brother and cousins started with BB guns and by the time they were teenagers they had rifles and shotguns that they used for deer hunting.

But having lived in Baltimore for nearly 25 years, I'm sensitive to the carnage of gun violence. I wouldn't think of giving my sons a real gun.

Yet I struggle to come to an answer about toy guns. My sons have an arsenal of air rifles. At first I adamantly opposed the guns, but over time, I came around to accept them, warning the kids they were not to shoot people or animals with the plastic pellets.

The 17-year-old has grown out of the air-rifle phase, but the 12-year-old still carries his guns around the yard and pretends to shoot zombies and spies. Usually the guns aren't even loaded.

And that brings me back to the original point. His guns look real, just as the gun of the California boy looked real. Could a neighbor, seeing my son walking around the yard, mistake him for a criminal and call police? Could police respond and mistake that toy gun for a real one? If the gun were painted a bright orange instead of black, would that be safer?

I think the answer is yes to all of those questions. The older son says he would not have minded if his toy guns were neon pink or orange. The younger boy thinks a brightly colored gun would be "stupid."

Over the years, he has had the same opinion of booster seats and bicycle helmets. But as a parent, my job is to keep him safe, even if it means sacrificing a bit of cool to do so.

Liz Atwood is a former Baltimore Sun features editor who teaches journalism at Hood College. She is the mother of two sons, ages 12 and 16.