Editor's note: After the Newtown massacre, the author was faced with a dilemma. She wrote this piece to try and figure out what to do.
There they are, hidden, behind my long dresses in my closet: The airsoft guns I bought for my kids for Christmas.
After the last few gut-wrenching days of grief, anger and sorrow over the shooting in Newtown, I have watched with hope the outpouring of support for gun control in our country. A national conversation has finally begun. And it really seems like this time, just maybe, things might actually change.
And here I sit, with a small arsenal of play guns ready to be wrapped and put under the tree for my 11- and 14-year-old children.
I never intended to be this permissive about guns. When the kids were little it was strictly a no guns/no video games rule at our Seattle home. But, of course, we couldn't control what our kids saw at other kids' houses, and the genie was soon out of the bottle. Our seemingly most-liberal-leaning friend bought my son his first toy gun. I was apoplectic. But, after my son's pleading for a Star Wars “Chewbacca Bowcaster” one Christmas (“It's not a gun, Mom! It's a crossbow!”) I caved. My son, much to my chagrin, found a way to convert the Bowcaster into a gun within days.
That was the end of our weapons-free zone.
Soon Nerf guns entered the house from various sources. Other parents I knew were equally relaxing the no-guns rule, our constant new refrain being, “It's OK to shoot it, just don't point it at A PERSON!”
The slippery slope was getting more and more precipitous. I mean, who wants a Nerf gun if you can't shoot it at your sister? Point taken.
When my son showed interest in airsoft guns, I drew the line. They looked too real. If anyone saw him with that on the street they'd assume the worst, call the cops, or worse, pull out their own weapon. Paranoid, maybe. But, the reality of weekly shootings in our seemingly safe neighborhood made my stance on airsoft completely rational.
When we moved to Whidbey Island, a rural outpost not that far from Seattle in miles but drastically distant in culture, all that changed. My son's new friends had plenty of airsoft rifles, which looked alarmingly like real weapons. They would play commando in our neighborhood, running through yards without complaint, usually without any bb's involved, having a good old-fashioned testosterone-fueled blast. And, my son loved it. Where he had been quiet and reserved in the city, on the island he could be a real boy.
My daughter got involved, too. My son gave her one of his airsoft pistols — a Sig Sauer, like one of the guns Adam Lanza had on him in Newtown — and my daughter wrapped the barrel in pink duct tape to signify her ownership. This year my son saved his money to buy a replica of an AK-47, and he got a sniper rifle for his birthday. He plinks the mailbox and hits the trees across the road. He takes it apart and puts it back together, plans upgrades, shares with his friends.
Here's the thing: My kid can't hurt a fly. Literally. He cannot squish a spider and he can hardly eat meat because he knows an animal died in the process. When his sister caught a fish this summer and brought it home in triumph my son nearly became physically ill. He was distraught when I told him about Newtown.
He's not a psycho in training. He's just a kid playing with toy guns.
Which comes to the point — at what level do we change the paradigm? Do we forbid playing with toy weapons so that our kids will grow up to not own real ones? When I lived in the city, I said yes.
Now, living in the country — on an Island — I'm not so sure. There are plenty of people with real guns in this rural setting, and the likelihood that my son and daughter will be exposed to real weapons at friends' houses is probably inevitable. Instead of pulling back on my kids' interest in guns, it seems like maybe it's time for me to actually educate them more fully about real guns and how to treat them.
So, along with their airsoft arsenal, perhaps a gift of gun safety and target shooting at the Rod and Gun Club is in order? So they can be safer? I really don't mean to sound like an NRA member, advocating for school principals packing heat, but I fear that I do. Knowledge is power. The more my kids know about guns, the better off they'll be, right?
Though I wouldn't teach my kids about drugs by showing them how to use them ...
But, given that in a natural disaster like an earthquake we'll most likely be cut off from the mainland and shooting deer for our dinner, it seems almost a necessity to learn how to handle a gun. Right?
Except. Except, I cannot go through with this. Despite all the justifications spread out before me, it still doesn’t feel right.
Time to return the weapons to the hardware store, and begin shifting the paradigm. One toy rifle at a time.
When I went to the hardware store to return the guns, just a few days after the Sandy Hook tragedy, the cashier pulled out the worn refrain, “Well, you know, I think guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” But, then she softened and said quietly, “I can totally understand bringing these back though.”
Initially the kids didn’t even notice that the guns they were expecting weren’t under the tree, and it took a few days for my son to ask, “Hey! Where’s that gun we bought for Grace?”
“I took it back,” I told him. “I just couldn’t do it. Not now. It just didn’t feel right.”
Disappointment lasted only a few hours; the issue was soon forgotten.
Amazingly, it worked. The paradigm did shift for us. I haven’t seen either of my children playing with their airsoft arsenal, now growing dusty in the back of the closet, since.
Penny Webb is a widowed mother of two teens. She is a founding member of the mommy punk band, The Kegels. Webb is currently working on her memoir and writing feature stories for Whidbey Life Magazine.