I often feel paralyzed by the gun violence plaguing this country, and after last week’s grotesque number of mass shootings – in Gilroy, El Paso, Dayton, Chicago, Brooklyn, and more – I was shocked to arrive at the park to find a dad distributing toy guns to about a dozen children and encouraging them to run around and shoot one another.
I was with my three kids and their two best friends, all between the ages of 3 and 8. They know that they are not allowed to play with toy guns, that guns are never toys, that guns can hurt and kill people. Within a few minutes of arriving, a couple of gun-wielding children pointed guns at my kids and “shot” them. When they continued doing so after my kids said they weren’t playing, I intervened and forcefully told the children not to point their guns at my kids.
Ten minutes into our park visit, we decided to leave the playground area and go to the woods across the parking lot to tromp around. I sent the children on their way and hung back for a moment. I approached the dad who was spearheading this activity, and asked him when he would be leaving because these toy guns were making my family feel uncomfortable. Furthermore, I continued, it was extremely disturbing that he would be handing out toy guns especially following this past week’s tragic events. He gave me a time, and a look I interpreted as embarrassment from my public chastisement, and I left.
I am a confrontation-averse individual, but my conscious screamed at me to say something to this adult rather than simply scold the children at play. This was a brave move on my part. It was also risky, as someone who would encourage gun play amongst kids might very likely be aggressive. But for once, I did not feel paralyzed, and I knew that I had to say something. This was our park too, and all kids should feel safe and welcome.
The dad and the children involved were all white. My kids are white as well. I am not an expert on race, but I understand, to an extent, that a black or brown-skin child might be perceived as a risk to others if they were holding a toy gun. And while I don’t think any child should be playing with a toy gun, especially at a public park, the race-based double standard causes me additional sadness and confusion, especially since most mass shootings are perpetrated by white males.
I am not an expert on the causes of mass shootings either, but I know that our failure to help those with mental illness, the president’s approval of white supremacy and misogyny, continued anti-muslim and neo-nazi sentiments, a culture of toxic masculinity, and an ill-conceived notion that Americans have the right to bear arms have created our current crisis in which school kids practice active-shooter drills and families fear crowded summer festivals.
I went online, searching the rules for East Bay Regional Parks, and there was no mention of toy guns. I was unable to find anything for Oakland city parks either. This seems like a simple fix. Surely our community can agree that toy guns do not belong in public parks. I can’t be the only one that fears any activity that normalizes gun culture. It’s not normal. Our country is sick. Our children are at risk. We all are.
PS: I received a quick response from East Bay Regional Parks. Here it is:
“Good morning, there is an ordinance that allows for us to ask people to put away toy guns. Especially if the guns are shooting projectiles even foam ones small pellets the only thing we really allow is squirt guns. In a future get ahold of a ranger and have them address the situation. by the way I agree with you the kids shouldn’t be running around shooting each other with guns. I’m sorry that you had to deal with this, have a nice day.”