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Every Christmas season, Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch holds a “toy gun bash.” Parents bring their children to feed their politically incorrect playthings into the maw of the Bash-O-Matic, a contraption the Boston Globe described as “a large black foam creature with churning metal teeth and the shape of a cockroach spliced with a frog.” In return, the children receive wrapped gifts such as board games, dolls or stuffed animals. To some kids, such as eight year old Malik Hall, guns for stuffed animals is a stinky trade. Malik had been “furious” at being forced to sacrifice his favorite toy, and had tried vainly to hide it under his pillow, according to the Globe’s account.

I learned about the Bash-O-Matic one recent morning on my way home from getting my coffee, when I tuned into the Michael Graham show on Boston’s WTKK. Graham was bashing Lynch, and Malik’s mom, and by extension, all liberals. My liberal heart notwithstanding, my sympathies lay with Malik, and Graham. Toy guns, and childhood fascinations with war don’t lead to adult violence.

Nonetheless, I wanted Graham and his listeners to know that not all liberals are heartlessly and mindlessly politically correct. So I dialed his number. I told him how my brother and I, then almost ten, and seven, respectively, had shot both 22s at MIT day camp, despite the fact that our late mother was a pacifist among whose first words to our besotted father, a WWII vet and graduate student who used to walk around Harvard Yard in his army fatigues were, “how could you bring yourself to fight?” (He hadn’t fought. He’d been a radar mechanic in the Air Force.)

I told Graham further how my parents had bought my brother a BB gun when he was 12, which we’d both used for target practice. I think I still have that BB gun somewhere in my basement.

Graham cut me off before I could tell him about my friend Kenny, the son of then-Harvard history professor H. Stuart Hughes, a close family friend who had run for the Senate as a pro-disarmament Independent against Ted Kennedy during the latter’s first Senate race, at a time when Kennedy’s campaign mantra, strange as it may now seem, was “We must arm to the teeth.” Stuart’s antiwar views notwithstanding, Kenny had battalions of toy soldiers, all on active duty.

Then there was Kee Il Choi, a classmate at my Quaker elementary school. Kee Il (pronounced “Keel”), a serious soul, was the leader of the oxymoronically-named Cambridge Friends Cadets. I can still see Kee Il and his crew of pretend fighter/bomber pilots charging around the parking lot, their arms spread like wings, making engine noises and incendiary device noises.

Nor was Kee Il the only budding militarist at Cambridge Friends School. At the Christmas assembly one year, Peter Ingram graced us with his poem, [a celebration of] The Dive Bombers. If any of this ever bothered Mr. Waring, the headmaster, he never let on.

Come to think of it, we spent fourth grade studying the Vikings, those marauders whose arrival struck terror in the hearts of the coastal residents of England and Ireland. Under Saran Morgan Hutchins’ superb tutelage, my initial distaste for these bandits turned into fascination with their adventures, and identification with their heroes and gods.

Attorney General Lynch’s views notwithstanding, both my brother and Kee Il became devoutly antiwar in high school, working for Eugene McCarthy during the 1968 election season, and my own love for Odin, Thor, and Eric the Red failed to steer me towards violence.

In fact, one purpose of play is to come to terms with one’s fears. Kids incorporate all sorts of frightening stuff into their games. A girl I know, who was seven when her grandmother was killed in one of the trade towers, spent weeks afterwards making towers out of blocks and knocking them down.

Once kids deal with their fears, they move on to new interests. I’m sure my parents and the Quakers understood all that. They also understood something else that seems beyond the PC police on the left, as well as the generals and soldiers in the War on Drugs on the right. Prohibition fuels fascination with the prohibited. And exposure to would-be objects of prohibition demystifies them.

To wit: I was almost 13 at the end of the year my family spent in Paris. One night we ate out with two other American families. The grownups ordered wine. The 16 year olds—my brother’s cohort–ordered wine. Observing the latter, my friends and I turned to each other with the determination of  General William Tecumseh Sherman. Our decision was made. We too ordered wine. The waiter brought it. We poured it. We tasted it. But we didn’t drink it. After all, what was the point?

Between that outing, and having always had a sip of my father’s drink of the evening since I’d been five or six, the lesson was simple. There was nothing mysterious about alcohol, and it tasted bad. I didn’t start drinking regularly until I was pushing 30, and I’ve been seriously drunk but twice in my life.

So let the kids have their toy guns.

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  1. David – despite the fact that I grew up as a Conservative, our experiences with both guns and alcohol are amazingly similar. My dad was a WWII vet (he was Admiral Nimitz personal musician – he was shot at, but never had to fire a shot himself), and he used to allow us sips of his evening drink. He never drank to excess, and as a result, he demystified alcohol for me, and I’ve never been drunk. Same thing with guns. I was allowed to have toy guns as a kid, and was taught gun safety from a very early age. Neither my sister nor I EVER dreamed of getting my dad’s shotgun or revolver and using it as a toy. We both knew what it could do – and what HE’D do to us, if we so much as touched it without him around. Even when he bought me a shotgun when I was around 12 or so, I was never temped to touch it without supervision. I think you’re on to something here, if personal experience is any measure.

    Another parallel – seems that medical studies indicate that our obsession with anti-microbials, disinfectants, and Purell is keeping kids from developing resistance to infections. Seems you have to get a little dirty now and then to build up an immunity to the garden variety stuff, in order to condition your immune system to be ready for the big, bad bugs when they come along. And come they will. I think we’d do our kids a favor, regardless how we feel about violence, guns, or politics, to allow them to do as generation upon generations have done before, and play with toy guns.

  2. Brad,

    Very interesting. Thanks. And yes, we certainly do need to play in the dirt in order for our immune systems to develop properly. I’ve written about some of this stuff for Microbe, the magazine of the American Society for Microbiology, where I’m Journal Highlights Editor. People with these germophobic obsessions don’t realize how strong our immune systems are. I can remember at age four, during an afternoon on the beach, I discovered that people often left a bit of soda or beer in the cans they tossed on the beach, and I went around drinking from them. I did not get sick. It’s definitely important to play in the dirt. I’m allergic to tetanus shots, but continuing to play in the dirt keeps my antibody titer up where it needs to be, so I haven’t needed a shot in nearly 40 years.

    And in the coincidence dept, my father was a close friend and colleague of Nancy Nimitz, the Admiral’s daughter. (They were both economists.)

  3. That’s a great story and Lynch is finally gone as our head legal fool. I used to sleep with my machine gun(it was a toy, sadly) when I was a little kid, but now that I’m almost all grown up I can sleep with real guns (but not a real machine gun cuz their still illegal in lil rhody).

  4. Dave, you may remember how many of us in the neighborhood played army almost on a daily basis. We reenacted the civil war with some of us being Johnny Reb the others The Blue Bellys. We did revolutionary war, WW1 and 2. Everything in between. We had contests to see who was most realistic being machine gunned to death as we saw in the movies. I used to parade around in my grandfather’s WW1 helmet, greatcoat, leggings and gasmask. Carrying my plastic 45 calibre Thompson sub machine gun a la Vic Morrow of “Combat”. To my knowledge we all grew up to be scientists, writers( you), actors/peace activists/environmentalists(myself), and one, nameless but remembered as the son of the Bavarian mom and father the former advisor to Zbigniew Brzezinski, who shot me in the rear end with his bb gun on a dare ( from me) a former American Chamber of Commerce in Paris president, and current World Bank mucky-muck. None ended up in prison. None of us became anything less then compassionate loving endowed and contributing citizens of our nation and the world. Nice writing! (as usual)

  5. George,

    I was so uninterested in playing army stuff that I probably didn’t participate in all that and have no recollection of anything related exceptfor the fact that you guys sometimes played army, and I would usually go do something else. Didn’t know the son of that advisor to Zbig, who was also the favorite prof of one of my closest friends and a highly respected colleague of my father’s did that awful deed. May the monkeys pelt him with their dung if he ever goes back to Rwanda.

  6. I was googling to see if the AG still did this and your misguided article popped up. Do you know why they did this? Have you heard of Tamir Rice? The black 12 year old shot in a park for holding a plastic gun? He is why. To prevent children from being shot.

  7. If you are the parent of a kid who likes to play with toy guns, you have some responsability to make sure that his/her realistic looking gun is painted at the muzzle in orange so that a policeman doesn’t shoot him out of fear.

    Yes, the LEO or other citizen that does so is wrong, but you have to share some of that blame. If the child is killed, I am really sorry, but not so sorry that I won’t say, “I told you so!”


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