By JESSE McKINLEY and MATT RICHTEL
Walk into Wal-Mart and you can usually find it: an aisle of weaponry, with names like the Firestrike, Rampage and Hail-Fire, advertising quick firing, ammunition clips and “semi-auto” capability. “Build your arsenal!” read the box for one, sitting next to a “tactical vest” meant to repel barrages of foam darts.
Those products, you see, are not actual guns but “blasters” made by Nerf, a brand of Hasbro and meant for children ages 8 and up. But in light of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, such toys – and their seemingly quasi-militaristic marketing – have some parents mulling what to say when their children reach for the toy holster.
“I have no idea what I’m going to do when he asks for one,” said Brooke Berman, a New York writer with a 2-year-old boy. “My initial impulse is to say: ‘No. We don’t play with guns. They’re not toys.’ But then, the fact is, they are toys.”
For its part, Hasbro agrees, and says its Nerf products, which can shoot darts, discs and water, simply “foster active play.” “We feel that kids of all ages and parents understand that these are toys,” said John Frascotti, the chief marketing officer for Hasbro, adding that “parents actually want play that gets their kids off the couch,” especially indoors, where foam ammo is less likely to break the family china.
Still, Berman is not alone in questioning whether make-believe guns belong in the toy chest. Heather Whaley, the mother of a 10-year-old boy and an 8-year-old girl, who lives about 10 miles from Newtown, Conn., said the killings there in December have reinforced a deep concern about the accessibility of real weapons in society and in people’s homes.
As for the pretend ones, Whaley said she would not even allow water guns in the house when her children were younger. “It’s dangerous to separate guns from what they actually do, which is kill things,” she said, adding: “If a child has grown up comfortable around guns, and has experienced picking up a gun and shooting it, then they will have that muscle memory. And it will be easier for them to shoot a real gun, if they find one.”
That argument has been echoed by a handful of anti-toy-gun activists, including the Alliance for Survival, a grass-roots group in California, which started a program this year to give merit awards to children who pledge not to have toy guns. Others have encouraged “toy gun exchanges,” where other playthings like Hula Hoops are given to children who turn in a toy gun.
Jerry Rubin, a peace activist and coordinator of the Alliance for Survival, said their message was that toy guns promote violence. “No one is saying that if you play with a toy gun, you’re going to grow up to be a violent killer,” Rubin said. “But the game is still the same: pretend to kill your friends, pretend to kill your classmates.”
He added that such toys could also endanger children carrying them because they could be mistaken for the real thing, particularly with law enforcement on guard against mass shootings. And indeed, last month the police locked down a high school in Elmont, N.Y., after a student brought a Nerf gun to school, even though it was lime green and bright yellow.
Complicating the debate is the fact that psychologists say it is difficult to assess the impact toy guns or even violent games may have on children’s minds, particularly young boys. Jess P. Shatkin, vice chairman for education at the New York University Child Study Center, said that “boys are in some real way engineered for physical activity and aggression” at a neurobiological level. “Just watch kids in the playground,” he said. “The boys are very often chasing, jumping, wrestling, pushing, etc.”
Still, Shatkin (who has a 12-year-old boy) added that he was not sure taking away the Nerf gun would curb violent play, advising instead that parents use “moderation and supervision.”
“I don’t think withholding a toy gun from a child is necessarily the answer,” he said. “It’s one possible answer. But they are still going to want to make guns from sticks and slices of cheese and anything else they can hold in their hands.”
Stevanne Auerbach, the founder and former director of the San Francisco International Toy Museum, who has organized “toy gun exchanges,” said she did not mind boys mimicking guns, if the play is based on their own invention – see finger, stick, cheese – rather than on the provision of actual physical (or virtual) toy guns.
But she added that parents are fooling themselves when they buy more cartoonish-looking guns like Nerf blasters, which are brightly colored and often oversize.
“They think it’s innocuous because it’s a cartoon,” she said. “But they’re buying something that is reinforcing shooting.”
Other parents question the notion that toy guns are somehow going to poison their children’s minds. Kate Moira Ryan, a playwright in New York and mother of a 13-year-old boy, Timothy, said she had forced him to sell his violent shooting video games after Newtown (“Life is too cheap in those games,” she said) but was less concerned about toy guns.
“Playing with a plastic Nerf gun didn’t turn Timothy into a violent person any more than me playing with a cap gun turned me into a mass murderer,” she said.
For his part, Frascotti of Hasbro said the events in Connecticut had given him pause as a parent; he has four children, after all. But he added that he believed that the Nerf blasters, which have been around for 20 years, simply provided “fun play opportunities for kids.”
“I look at everything first and foremost as a parent,” he said. “And we believe that parents are the best ones to make decisions about what toys their children should play with.”