Boys with Toys Are Killing Us

Kyle Rittenhouse on his way to shooting up a peaceful protest

I've been writing versions of this essay as long as I've been blogging (since 2013), and thinking about it for far longer than that. Some of those essays showed up in this space, triggering fusillades (yes, I use those words intentionally) of reactionary denial from the one or two pro-gun followers I have. I have no illusions about my ability to change the minds of such people, nor of the size of my audience--my most-read posts have garnered views in the hundreds, and usually I top out at about two dozen.

Be all of that as it may, I'm writing now because I have to. The fear, anger, and disgust that's been simmering within me needs venting, and needs to be out there, whether or not anyone agrees or even reads it.

The painfully obvious thesis of this piece: this country has a gun problem, and there doesn't seem to be anything effective that people in power are willing to do about it. Here's a more controversial, but again painfully obvious if you're paying attention, refinement of that thesis: the public face of this gun problem is almost exclusively that of white men, particularly young white men.

This is an anecdotal piece. I'm not going to crunch any numbers (that's not my specialty, anyway), just draw on headlines that have led me, on a daily basis, to lower my head, feel my eyes mist up, shake a metaphorical fist, and know deep in my gut that before I can even begin to express my fury, another shooting will be seizing the attention of the one that triggered that reaction within me.

A supermarket in Buffalo, an elementary school in Texas, an Independence Day parade in Illinois: the first of these three incidents was a racist assault, while the other two appear to have had no goal beyond taking as many lives in as short a time as possible--which was also a goal of the Buffalo assault. They were all planned carefully, with thought given to how to disable or avoid armed police or security response. They all made use of long guns, whether AR-15s or other high-powered rifles. And all the perpetrators were young men, steeped in online communities that wallow in the mass slaughter of innocent human beings, dehumanized in one way or another to have no more value than targets at a shooting range.

I'm not going to promote censorship of the forums, entertainment properties, or video games that may contribute to such a world view, because that's not where this impulse comes from. Violent entertainment has been a part of popular culture from the beginning. It's in the epic adventure poems of Homer, in the Creation and Exodus narratives of the Torah, in the mythology and folklore of every civilization that's ever existed. We're hard-wired for it.

Now here's the really controversial part: the "we" in that last sentence refers, very specifically, to men; and, even more specifically, to young men. Boys.

Now comes a personal story: my father was a pacifist. He never believed that violence could settle anything--and the rare and ineffective spankings he meted out supported that principle. Sure, we'd cry, apologize, and promise never to do it again, but if we'd kept that promise, there wouldn't have been another spanking a few days later.

He was right, to an extent: violence solves nothing as long as it leaves the victims alive. The sad truth is that violence has solved many a conflict by simply eliminating the opposing party. Which is why, from the moment little boys can handle tools, they turn them into weapons.

When I was 4 years old, I got my first set of Legos. I had a younger brother (he was 2 at the time), and we went to work immediately fashioning those Legos into guns. For bullets, we threw loose Legos at each other as we made shooting noises. As soon as our parents realized what we were doing, they put a stop to it, taking the Legos away and lecturing us on how no guns of any kind were allowed in our house. And when they weren't looking, we went right back to turning those Legos into guns.

We weren't allowed to have gun toys (and that includes squirt guns) until I was, I think, 10 years old. As soon as that prohibition was dropped, I went to the local variety store in search of the most gun-like water pistols I could find. My favorite, I'm ashamed to say, was shaped like a Luger. I remember how good it felt in my hand, how cool it looked, and how much fun it was to pull the trigger. A few years later, we were allowed to buy Star Trek branded guns that shot Day-Glo colored disks. We chased each other around the yard (by now there were four of us, all boys, with a fifth one to arrive a year later), emptying the magazines of these guns that looked nothing like the phasers used in Star Trek--and, of course, had no "stun" setting.

How did I know, at 4, to make my Legos into a gun? I'd probably seen it on TV, which we watched a lot, particularly sitcoms and animal shows. It might've been from F Troop, perhaps McHale's Navy. It wouldn't have been Lost in Space because, as cool as their laser pistols were, they didn't use bullets. 

Around the time we were permitted water pistols, we also got our first G.I. Joes. In the early 1970s, these actions figures had, in response to the anti-war movement, turned away from their military roots. I had a space explorer (complete with Mercury capsule and silver space suit), while one of my brothers had a sea explorer. While Hasbro had definitely downplayed the violent roots of these toys, they still came with shoulder holsters and pistols, so of course my brother and I had our astronaut and sea captain shooting at each other.

Many years later, I was blessed to be the father of two children, a girl and a boy. I don't remember my daughter ever having any interest in toy weapons. My son, on the other hand, took an immediate liking to Star Wars and pirates, and filled pages with drawings of TIE fighters and pirates battling for control of the Titanic while volcanoes erupted in the background (his other two interests).

I could go on talking about popular culture and toys (when I play them, my favorite video games involve space battles and assassins), but my point, again, is that these are pop culture accessories vastly preferred by boys and young men.

What it simply comes down to is this: for survival of the species reasons, men are wired to be hunters and raiders. It's how humanity evolved. It's not a PC opinion, but anyone who's raised boys can attest to its veracity. Boys turn objects into knives, swords, and guns from the moment they're able to manipulate them. They have to be trained out of this impulse, and for many, it never really goes away.

And for some, it ultimately turns deadly.

But only if they can get their hands on a real, rather than toy, gun.

That's the part that is most infuriating. All over the world, young men have the same instinctual impulse to resolve conflicts with violence, to hunt, defend, and raid using their fists, sharp objects, and, if they can get their hands on them, projectile weapons. Civilization has evolved to counter, or at least channel, that impulse in acceptable directions: sports rather than war, and if it comes to war, organized armies that (inconsistently) follow rules of engagement.

For the individual who exists outside of these socially accepted expressions of the violent impulse, though, there are still alternatives that don't take actual lives. In fact, for most, I expect the ultra-violent video games and entertainments that turn my stomach may provide the outlet they need to release their primordial demons. Occasionally, in countries other than the USA, one will hear about a knife attack or even, once in a decade, a rare gun attack.

In the United States, we have two mass shootings a day.

The difference between all those other countries and ours is, of course, that here we have ready, easy, legal access to war guns.

That's why a small town in Texas is grieving the deaths or an entire class of fourth graders. It's why families in Buffalo are grieving the loss of their parents, partners, and grandparents. It's why a toddler found wandering in Highland Park, Illinois, will grow up without his parents. It's why children across the country are trained in how to hide from active shooters, why a conference I attended a few years ago in Fort Worth began with instruction on what to do if it happened there, why around the world people consider Americans to be gun-loving idiots.

The solution to the problem is not background checks, red flag laws, or any of the other bandaids that somehow manage to slip by the gun lobby. It's a simple, universal, draconian prohibition of gun ownership. It doesn't mean we cease to be a democracy--unless we're the only country in the world that really is one (and considering how long the gun-loving minority has ruled this issue, that's a very debatable idea).

The vast majority of violent gun incidents don't involve mass shootings. They're suicides (far easier, and much less reversible, with a gun), domestic shootings (arguments settled permanently with a gun), accidents (inadequate training in our regulation-free anything-goes gun culture), and minor crimes made major by the presence of firearms. In all of these cases, lives are lost because a gun is present.

There are many who will insist that guns need to be available for responsible sport and defense uses. I'm unmoved by either of these arguments. Too many people are dying. Too many more people who survive shootings are physically and psychically scarred for life. And far too many of the rest of us are living in fear because we can't help thinking that, at some point, our luck will run out, and we'll be the targets of some kid who's decided to take his video game into the real world and is mowing random people down as if they were zombies; or we'll be caught in the crossfire between a bad guy with a gun and a good guy with a gun whose aim isn't all that great; or one of our children, visiting a friend, will pick up a gun an irresponsible adult left lying around; or or or or or...

The only thing that really stops shootings, once and for all, is taking guns away from all potential shooters. Until that happens, we're doomed to go on living in fear and disgust.

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