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Really, Nerf, You're Part of the Problem With Guns In the US

Photograph by Twenty20

This mama got in a heap of trouble on the internet the other day when I revealed that I would not be allowing my 7-year-old son to use his allowance to buy a Nerf “blaster.” There were strangers sending their sympathies to my son for being raised by a mom like me (and this in a “gentle parenting” group, no less!). Dear friends, who think my long-standing stance on gun violence had gone just a tad too far, and other friends whose own kids play with the toys, felt judged by my proclamation.

Thanks, Nerf.

Why would Nerf and their parent company Hasbro manufacture a line of “blasters” that so carefully and in excruciating detail mimic assault grade weaponry?

Here’s the deal. I fully embrace and acknowledge that while I might not like it, my sons are going to engage in gun play. No matter what limits I may set, they will find a way to play shoot ‘em up games, even if they have to fabricate them from sticks or empty toilet paper rolls. I’ve done the research and am satisfied that it is just a simple developmental rite of passage for many children. In fact, some experts support violent play in childhood, as a way of working through issues related to fear, power and vulnerability. Nothing to be alarmed about.

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Except, after standing in the toy aisle, my son literally hopping in his pants from excitement, I found myself staring at what looks to be an arsenal, not a wall of toys. And, yes, I was alarmed. Sure, the guns are called “blasters,” and they are manufactured in cheerful colors of orange and white and blue, but they also come equipped with things like tri-pods, clips and cartridges of foam ammunition, working cameras for better aiming and even magazines that wriggle their way through as the child happily shoots.

Photograph by Amazon

Well, not my child in my home. I am secure enough in my decision to own that. I also have no illusions. Some of my son’s friends have Nerf toy guns, and he will gladly seek them out on his next playdate. He understands that our rules are different than some of his friends.

The question that keeps coming up for me, though, is why? Why would Nerf and their parent company Hasbro manufacture a line of “blasters” that so carefully and in excruciating detail mimic assault grade weaponry? These toy guns are literally one can of black spray paint away from being used as movie and cosplay props? Why do children need clips or cartridges or magazines of toy ammunition? Why do we, as a culture, continue to glorify and romanticize weapons whose sole purpose is to kill as many people as possible in as little time as possible?

I don’t get it.

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And just because I am on a roll here, let’s talk about toy guns that look real, real guns that look like toys, race, urban violence and police officers. Why not? The internet already hates me; I might as well knock this one out the park. Let’s make these words worth all our while.

Children with names like Tamir Rice in Cleveland or Andy Lopez in California have been shot and killed by police officers who mistakenly believe their toy guns were real and feared for their lives. Don't forget 3-year-old Temoraj Smith, in Greenville, South Carolina, who was shot and killed while playing with a handgun that happened to be pink. You know, for the ladies, so they can be cute like that.

Call me a bleeding heart, call me controlling, call me foolish, I don’t care. I will continue to rail against and challenge a culture that is so easily able to rationalize 4-, 5-, 6- and 7-year-old children playing with toys that look disturbingly close to weapons our soldiers carry—automatic and assault grade, ready for action.

When do we put two and two together? California passed a law in 2014 that required toy guns sold within the state to be either brightly colored or transparent, just like the Nerf guns I refuse to have in my home. But what is to prevent anyone with a can of spray paint from working their mojo and mocking up one very realistic looking assault grade weapon in just the time it takes for the paint to dry? Only about the six bucks that can of paint costs, it turns out.

And the brutal truth is that my white son could no doubt trot over to the local park and play his little heart out with any toy gun he wanted without me having to worry for his life. My friends with black and brown children could not ever say the same.

I hope all my friends with white children appreciate that privilege.

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So, yes, I will set that limit for my boys. Call me a bleeding heart, call me controlling, call me foolish, I don’t care. I will continue to rail against and challenge a culture that is so easily able to rationalize 4-, 5-, 6- and 7-year-old children playing with toys that look disturbingly close to weapons our soldiers carry—automatic and assault grade, ready for action.

That is not play, my friends. That is foreplay into our American obsession with guns.

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