Playing with Guns

Growing up in the Gun Culture

Everyone wanted Jay on their team because Jay was the oldest and the strongest. His arms were as thick as fire logs. His mouth could spit out litanies of cuss words that the rest of us were still too young to understand. He rode a genuine BMX bicycle and could pop wheelies without falling off.

No one messed with Jay.

Normally, physical strength and strong language would not be useful in a gun fight but the usual requisites: marksmanship and tactical prowess, were useless skills when playing Guns. Strong rhetoric was what won you your battles — strong rhetoric and a friend to back you up. We were all well-armed, of course. The game was Guns. Shooting each other was the point. Though it was difficult to tell if anyone hit or missed. There were no actual bullets in Guns.

“Bang!” I said, “Bang Bang Bang!”

Matt was still crouched behind the bush. He didn’t make the customary croaking sound and roll on the ground convulsing like he was supposed to, so I switched to automatic fire to get my point across.

“Dfthdfthdfthdfthdfthdfth!” I said. “I hit you, you’re dead!”

“You missed!”

“No I didn’t!”

“I had cover. I was behind a bush!”

“Bushes can’t stop bullets!”

The debate went on and on until a third party finally intervened. In these instances, the third party was usually Jay. If Jay just happened to be on your team, you won. No one messed with Jay.

Our chosen weapons were whatever we could get our hands on. We used squirt guns (Super Soakers), Nerf guns, cap guns, plastic toy replica rifles, brooms, anything that resembled a rifle or a pistol was usable. The neighborhood kids would run around my parents’ yard, yell “Bang!” at one another, and throw invisible hand grenades until everyone agreed that one team had killed the other. Then we’d do it all over again.

Naturally, my parents were somewhat disturbed by all this, my mother particularly so. She hated guns. She grew up in a California suburb. Living in Virginia was difficult for her. During the hunting season we could hear the hunter’s shots echoing through the woods behind our house, even though we were nowhere near a designated hunting area. My mother had a constant fear that her children would one day be mistaken for a deer. Watching her children shoot each other, even though it was make-believe, was trying. She was willing to give us Super Soakers, but we had to wage a long war to convince her to buy us Nerf Weapons because they fired actual projectiles. In the end, we weren’t satisfied with these either. Nerf couldn’t match the range and accuracy of our imaginations, so they were added to the Guns arsenal and used for pretend.

The first time I fired a real gun, I was visiting my Aunt Lou and Uncle Bob in Roanoke, Virginia. It was Thanksgiving. Their house was nestled in the Appalachian mountains and was surrounded by wooded hills. Uncle Bob had a gun cabinet in a room upstairs which was full of pistols, shotguns, and .22 rifles. My brother and I were in awe. The cabinet was locked, so we admired the elegant curvature of the weapons from the other side of the glass. Uncle Bob noticed our interest and proposed to my parents that he show us how to shoot. My mother was mortified, though she eventually conceded. My brother and I were ecstatic.

We shot cans off a stone embankment on the edge of the driveway while under strict supervision. Feeling the .22 rifle in my hand, its power, its gracefulness, I garnered a certain respect for the weapon. I also had my uncle’s instruction. Bob was a long time gun-owner and a responsible one. He told me that guns were not toys. Guns were tools used for shooting. Only adults were allowed to use and carry them because they were very dangerous. Firing the rifle for the first time, I understood. The kick hurt my shoulder. I missed the can several times before I hit it, but when I did it skittered off into the woods at amazing speed. I never wanted to be on the other end of a gun. Guns could really hurt people.

There are probably thousands of parents out there who are concerned that their children are engaging in “gun play”. I am not a child psychiatrist, but I was a boy who thought guns were cool. I do know some things about gun play.

For one: kids are pretty smart.

When my friends and I were playing Guns, we knew it was make believe. We also understood that guns were dangerous and that people died when they were shot with them. We didn’t have a developed concept of death or violence yet, but we knew that guns were serious business. That‘s why we were fascinated with them. We didn’t actually want to kill people, we just wanted to engage with serious, adult subject matter in the only way we knew how: through free play. At some point, we were all exposed to real violence or the portrayal of violence. This was inevitable. “Gun play” was simply our way of exploring what violence meant. Comprehending it.

If I “shot” Matt in my backyard and he pretended to fall down and die, I knew he would stand back up again because I knew what I was doing was not real. The “real” was something I hadn’t experienced yet. I was just eager to learn. I was just curious.

My parents didn’t censor our play because they knew it was a futile enterprise. They bought us bright colored Super Soakers and Nerf weapons because they thought it would be easier for us to set them apart from actual guns, but in our minds they always became pistols and machine guns.

Every kid deserves a childhood, but they’ll have to engage with the harsh truths of the world at some point. I think I had a healthy childhood. I wouldn’t change anything. There was no need for me to be completely sheltered from guns because guns were going to be a part of the society that I eventually inherited, whether my parents liked it or not. By allowing me to explore the subject on my own, I was granted the space I needed to develop a strong understanding of the difference between imagination and reality.

My parents also deserve a great deal of credit; They were available when I had questions. They were there to guide me. They explained that actions had consequences and that violence was a terrible thing that happened in the real world and was not to be taken lightly. Without my parents, I don’t know what I would have become. I don’t know if my fascination with guns and violence would have continued into adulthood and morphed into something more horrifying, but my parents were there. I don’t own a gun. I don’t particularly like guns, either. The last time I fired one was years ago at a shooting range in Virginia. I was in my mid twenties. I’m not drawn to them anymore, but I can understand why some people are.

As a boy, there was a war going on in my backyard. A pretend war: boys being boys. Eventually the boys grew up and stopped shooting each other. They found more constructive interests. They started lives. They matured and turned into men.