Playing with Guns: Parenting in the Age of the Active Shooter


The first time I hold a gun I am 3 years old. We are visiting my father’s business partner. My dad is getting into strawberries, which means he’s getting into the drugs he can hide in the strawberry truck. In the living room, I slip my chubby 3-year-old hand between the cushions of the brown furry couch and pull out the gun. It’s heavy, but not cold, in my hand. I turn around and squeal, “Treasure!”

“Bring it to me, Sara,” my mother’s steady voice requests. And I do. I don’t throw the loaded gun. I don’t fire it accidentally. I toddle over and hand it gently to my mother.

It’s the story I tell about the gun that keeps this memory with me. A story about my mother saving me.

Now, I am the mother of an almost 5-year-old boy. We’re navigating the issue of violence.

I drop my son off at 8:30 a.m., punching in a four-digit code at the gate of his school and then another four-digit code at the main door. I get a voicemail in the afternoon, a computer telling me there is a hoax school shooting threat against the school district. The robotic voicemail says it’s a part of a series of internet hoaxes. How will I save him if I’m not there? How do I talk to my son about these possibilities, even if they seem improbable? The American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends parents avoid discussing mass shootings with young children until they are around 8. What should I tell my son now?

When I read articles about how to talk to children about guns, I repeatedly encounter the phrase “the new normal.” The new normal is preparing your family for an active shooter situation. The new normal is not “stop, drop, and roll” but “run, hide, and fight.” My son only understands these concepts as dramatic play.

At the playground, an older boy has a green plastic AR-15 he points at his playmates. He spins in a circle on the wood chips, chanting pop-pop-pop-pop. The younger boys gawk in awe. My son wants to touch it.

My father carried his gun with intention when he and my uncle walked into a grocery store during the ’80s, armed, faces covered, ready to take everything they wanted. Will this boy become the teenager who trades his plastic toy for live weapons? Will he just play video games? Where is the line between pretending and life, between playing and violence?

The gun I played with as a teenager was real. I’m 14, in the Mojave Desert standing next to the boy I want to impress. The sun burns my skin. I’m holding a barely cold can of Natural Ice. I push the can down into the dirt as more boys gather around behind me. Half-drunk and laughing, they don’t wear shirts. They have tan, muscled stomachs they won’t get to keep. We’re all slathered in dirt.

“It’ll have a kickback,” he tells me, and I take the shotgun confidently to show that I know what this means. Kickback. I’m shooting at nothing, pointing at the vast sand beyond the four-wheeler. I pull the trigger. “Hah!” Laughter shoots from his body as the shotgun forces itself, hard, into mine, punching me in the chest. The boys erupt. I’m now not just the girl someone might hook up with when we get wasted. I’m the girl who fired the gun. The girl with the bruises all over her chest. I pick up the beer and drink it, holding the gun with my other hand.

As parents, we’re the last generation to remember a childhood before school shootings. I graduated high school in 1999, the same year Columbine began this new era. Emma Gonzalez and the Peace Warriors from Chicago are my heroes. They’re teenagers. Their stories, their accomplishments are the books I want to read to my son, the media I want him to watch, the lunch pail I want him to carry. His heroes are the Rescue Bots, Star Wars Jedis, and Ninjago.

We could so easily get guns. We felt so cool playing with them, drinking cheap beer in the desert. How dangerous that this kind of gunplay seems innocent now. After finding a gun in the couch at 3 and firing one at 14, I’m now trying to teach my son not to point a finger gun:

“I’m only shooting the bad guys, Mommy.”

Who are the bad guys? Why are they bad? My son is already a potential fighter, a potential soldier, trying to cope with sophisticated male expectations of violence through play.

“Why did you bite her?”

“I wanted the bike.”

“Do you think there was maybe a better way to get a turn, a way where you don’t hurt your friend?”

His face reddens as he whimpers, “Yes. But I already had a turn. I wanted to keep my turn.”

His intentions are so clear. The preschooler’s lack of self-awareness gives my son such direct access to the reasons for his actions, but it also makes it challenging for him to regulate his impulses. If I bit someone in front me in line at the DMV because I wanted their turn, I might get arrested. It would take me so long to psychologically suss out why I committed such a spontaneous act of violence. But my son can say it. He knows why he bites his friends.

My son’s gunplay is pretend. Mine was real. My dad’s. I am standing here facing the media, the toys, the lunch pails with heroes wielding guns, sabers, and swords, standing here with the responsibility to make sure my son is a peaceful person. It’s easy to feel outnumbered, exhausted, and unsure. In those moments of uncertainty, it’s easy to want a shortcut to intention, to a certainty that I’m parenting for peace and respect for all persons. I’m not the toddler pulling the gun from the couch or the girl drinking in the desert; I’m a mother parenting in the age of the active shooter. I can’t guarantee my son’s safety or be certain of who he will grow up to be, but I do know the code to the school gate, to the building door. I’m trying to teach him to put down the finger gun.

Dropping my son off at his classroom door each morning I ask him, “What’s today going to be?” and each morning he replies, “ A great day, Mommy.”

Image: Unsplash/Jon Tyson.