Toy Guns and Adult Violence; Is There a Connection?

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is there some kind of bizarre correlation between not allowing children to play with toy guns and later incidents of adult violence?

I can vividly remember standing in my backyard, wearing a cowboy hat and smiling. My hands were up in the air as one of the Garys on my block (there were two) had just caught me by surprise and yelled: "Hands Up!" I did as he said.  That was because my toy cap gun was still holstered while his gun was pointed right at me.

If you will recall, I said I was smiling. That was because, unknown to him, I was wearing a Yancey Derringer belt buckle which cleverly hid a miniature cap gun. All I had to do was push out my stomach and the little gun would swing out and fire. I did! He was dead! Then he got up and marveled at my gun while I basked, for the moment, in the uniqueness of my toy weapon.

That, as you can imagine, was a long time ago, a time when playing with toy cap guns was a part of everyday play. We played army, guns and cops and robbers; roamed our neighborhoods and shot at each other from behind trees and under back porches. Everyone had at least one real-looking cap gun as well as numerous rolls of caps. It was, to us, an innocent form of fantasy play.  None of us ever equated it with real violence

That all changed in the 1970s as cap guns began disappearing from store shelves; a reaction to too many body bags coming home from Viet Nam. It was those memories that came to mind as I responded to questions from New York Times reporter, Sandra Garcia (see "Cut the Wire,’ a Toy Bomb Game, Is Discontinued After Criticism"), about the public pushback against a toy called "Cut the Wire" from Yulu Toys. The game challenges the player to defuse some toy sticks of dynamite before they blow up.

I checked out a Youtube critique by The Toy Guy, Chris Byrne (see below). I liked "Cut the Wire", as did Chris. It really challenges a child's fine motor and problem-solving skills. Others did not. In fact, some adults took to the social networks and as a result, Target and Wal-Mart retailers responded by discontinuing the product. 

I share the public's squeamishness about a play pattern that models itself on the reality of a very violent world. But does violent play in childhood result in violent actions in adulthood? It was with that question in mind that I thought back to my childhood and the irony that we, as children of the 1960s, did not become violent teenagers and young adults.

Oddly, those High School shootings that have become such a horrible part of everyday life  began occurring in the late 90s, about when those kids who were deprived of cap guns in the 1970s began to come of age.


I also thought about my visits to the Hong Kong and Nuremberg toy fairs where a visitor sees an ample number of booths displaying very real looking toy guns that shoot caps as well as various kinds of soft and not so soft projectiles. Some exhibits feature shooting galleries and many are manned by adults, sometimes wearing balaclavas. It some cases it can actually feel be a bit threatening.

Obviously, other countries simply do not have our squeamishness about toy gun play. Yet, in most of the world, gun deaths are a small percentage of what they are in the U.S. (see chart below)


So, is there some kind of bizarre correlation between not allowing children to play with toy guns and later incidents of adult violence? Is it possible that children need to act out violent play in order to avoid doing so as adults? I am not prepared to say there is, there are just too many variables to consider. I am, however,  saying that it is a subject worthy of study.

In the meantime, maybe we should not be so fast in pulling a great toy off the shelf just because it allows a child to pretend to defuse a bomb and, in his or her imagination, save the world.

9 thoughts

  1. The post you shared here is very informative and full of knowledge. Toy guns are toys which imitate real guns, but are designed for children to play with. From hand-carved wooden replicas to factory-produced pop guns and cap guns, toy guns come in all sizes, prices and materials such as wood, metal, plastic or any combination thereof. Many newer toy guns are brightly colored and oddly shaped to prevent them from being mistaken for real firearms.

  2. Richard,
    I’m a little late to the party on this, but wanted to weigh in. I remember the buckle gun, and Johnny Seven and Six Finger and Greenie Stickem Caps and Shootin’ Shells and the great guns so many companies made.
    No, a thousand times no. Toy guns do not beget real violence. That’s what all the dorky Moms in the neighborhood thought decades ago. So kids would just come over to my house and we’d open up the arsenal.
    I think you may be on to something with the repression of those childhood tendencies returning during adolescence. And I would agree that ultra-violent video games turn out callous, insensitive teenaged terrorists. Fortnite anyone?
    Bring back toy guns!

  3. Interesting debate: My frame of reference is myself. Born in 1952, In the late 50’s my allowance was .15 cents per day, doles our daily. For weeks, I would buy the same rubber indian knife. I had a fun belt with two six guns and when alone, I would play out a fantasy with a couch bolster, when stood upright, became another cowboy wearing a belt with one gun. We would stand at a table that represented a bar and I would make believe he would spill a drink on me which ofcourse led to a fist fight with the bolster. Ofcourse the 2nd couch bolster came in to help his friend but I always won. Sometimes there was no end when my Mother came in and yelled at me for punching the bolsters and telling me to do something ‘constructive.’
    This led me to about 10 or 11 when mail order companies offered a daisy pump gun (bb gun) for selling greeting cards to the neighbors.
    I still have shame about shooting a small bird off a telephone wire. It is this shame that has molded me to someone that could not possibly hunt an animal or step on insects etc. Yes, I believe study would certainly bring out that play and reality are real for the child but not necessarily a prelude to what will be! Play teaches us lessons for better and possibly for worse. I can only rely on my experience and wonderful memories, ofcourse except for the bird incident. Perhaps that set me up for a life’s lesson!

  4. Interesting article Richard. When my kids were, well, kids, I never allowed toy guns (even water guns) in the house. However, they seemed to pick up anything long and narrow (broom, plunger, you name it) and “shoot” at each other. Thus, I always suspected that there was some natural play pattern involved. And, no, no video games either.

  5. A very thoughtful piece, Richard. So many disconnects between what were past harmless “fun” toys and today’s gun violence. It may well be that we can’t at all look at toy guns/bombs as they were a part of scenario play in the past. And whatever moves us further from gun violence today must be the deciding criteria.

  6. In South Korea, you can buy super real looking toy guns.
    Super popular category. Big sales.
    No South Korean students or immigrants from South Korea to the USA are perps of gun crimes in the USA. None.
    Toy gun sales in the USA at an all time low, and at an all time low availability as well. The Star Wars guns look less like guns than Super Soakers do.
    The Han Solo blaster looks like a giant orange hair dryer.
    So far, toy lightsaber popularity has not lead to real sword violence.
    What about the lives saved due to gun ownership? Crimes thwarted? It seems unfair to leave that out. That graph, and those stats, are just as “off the charts” and growing.

  7. I would look at the rise of blood and gore video games like Call of Duty. Play 5 minutes of this game and tell me it has zero affect on an impressionable mind. Video game creators get a pass on this very disturbing trend.

  8. I have a hard time buying your suggested causation (that you admit needs further study). Perhaps instead, we are more sensitive to gun play as gun violence is a real threat in our lives, and even the lives of children. I don’t allow toy guns in our home when “we have a real gun problem right outside our doors” as I tell my child. We also live in Oakland where there are a lot of shootings. I don’t want to normalize guns. When we stop allowing real guns in this country, perhaps they can become playthings agin.

  9. Good piece, Richard!
    You and I are (roughly) the same age. My parents were virulently anti-gun and refused to buy me toy guns…until…
    For some reason I never thought to ask about, they bought me not just a toy gun, but the ULTIMATE toy gun – Johnny Seven OMA (One Man Army).
    Sooner or later, I also had a Six-Finger (“man alive…how did I ever get along with five” –

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