Commentary: Toy Guns Kill People



Yesterday I took my daughter to lunch over at Lamppost Pizza. She likes to get the little trinkets in the quarter vending machines and so I gave her $1, thinking little of it. She came back with a tiny gun on a keychain.

When I was growing up, my parents never let us have toy guns. Guns are not toys, we would learn from an early age. Lately I have been thinking more about that lesson, particularly in light of the tragic killing of Tamir Rice by police.

My daughter didn’t understand why she couldn’t have the gun keychain, even after I explained to her that guns were not toys. However, she was happy to let me have it in exchange for a second dollar.

On Thursday, the New York Times ran an article, “Tamir Rice and the Color of Fear.” Like many, I believe that had Tamir Rice been white, living in a middle class neighborhood or suburb, the police would have hesitated before opening fire on him.

The Times article, written by Brit Bennett, a writer living in Los Angeles, notes that the two officers “were cleared of any criminal wrongdoing for killing Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old who had been playing in a Cleveland park with a toy gun.”

As she noted, the 911 caller reported that Tamir Rice was “waving the gun at people,” but qualified it that Tamir Rice was probably “a juvenile,” and the gun “probably fake.” This message was not relayed to the officers responding to the call and “surveillance footage shows Officer Timothy Loehmann hopping out of a skidding cruiser and shooting Rice twice before the car fully stops.”

What got me thinking was the next bit of discussion. Ms. Bennett writes, “At his news conference Monday, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty admitted that it was ‘likely’ that Rice was reaching for his waistband to show the officers that the toy gun was not real.

“If we put ourselves in the victim’s shoes, as prosecutors and detectives try to do, it is likely that Tamir — whose size made him look much older and who had been warned that his pellet gun might get him into trouble that day — either intended to hand it to the officers or to show them it wasn’t a real gun,” McGinty said. “But there was no way for the officers to know that, because they saw the events rapidly unfolding in front of them from a very different perspective.”

Ms. Bennett then writes, “McGinty cast himself as empathetic by trotting out his attempt to put himself in Rice’s shoes. But he didn’t empathize, not really. He barely attempted to understand Rice’s intentions before he qualified the boy’s killing, both in terms of his large size and his failure to heed a warning that playing with the toy gun might be dangerous. Rice’s death was attributed to factors both outside and within the boy’s control: Of course the officers responded with deadly force — Rice looked like a man, not a child. And the boy was warned earlier to put the toy gun away — he should have known better. McGinty didn’t spend much time in Rice’s shoes because he didn’t need to. In a police-shooting case, the only perspective that matters is that of the officer who pulls the trigger.”

She adds, “In a report issued by McGinty’s office following the grand jury’s decision, he reiterates that the toy gun looked ‘just like the real thing.’ The problem is that Tamir Rice looked like the real thing too. He was a black boy who too closely resembled a black man, and that alone was enough to rob him of the benefit of the doubt. A toy gun in a black child’s hands becomes a real gun, the same way a wallet or a cellphone or car keys in the hands of a black adult transforms into a real gun. Black bodies morph into weapons, and the imagined danger becomes more powerful than fact. Again and again, juries find this reasonable.”

As I said earlier, I think the chances that the officers shoot a white kid in a middle class neighborhood are much less under the same circumstances, but this all got me thinking… Guns are not toys.

Tamir Rice was warned to put the toy gun away. It looked like a real gun. Maybe one of the lessons here is that guns are not toys. Therefore, toys should not be guns.

In California, the toy gun law requires an orange ring around the barrel to distinguish the toy guns from real weapons. Manufacturers are required by law to warn on their packaging that the modification of the guns may result in legal ramifications.

There are reasons for this and not just for the safety of the kids, but also because people have used toy guns to hold up convenient stores and rob people.

In this state, brandishing fake guns as real ones is punishable by a $100 fine for the first offense, $200 for the second offense and is considered a misdemeanor by the third offense.

Many states now require a broad orange stripe down the side to distinguish fake guns from real guns, but recently CNN had a story that online retailers in August reached a settlement with major online retailers who agreed to stop selling realistic-looking toy guns in New York state.

New York State Attorney General Eric Scheiderman said that, in the past 20 years, there have been 63 shootings linked to toy guns in the state, resulting in at least eight deaths. He said at that press conference that it was the 1998 death of a Brooklyn teenager, whose water gun was mistaken by police for a real weapon, that led to the ban on realistic toy weapons.

All of this leads one to wonder if we aren’t actually going far enough. Why do we need toy guns? Guns are not toys and toys should not be guns. Perhaps we are learning the wrong lesson here, a lesson that young Tamir Rice will not get to learn and his parents will have to live with forever.

But it is a lesson I hope my daughter will learn.  No one would mistake the gun keychain for anything, but the bigger point is guns are not toys – let our kids play with other things.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Topcat

    When I was growing up, my parents never let us have toy guns. Guns are not toys, we would learn from an early age.

    Yes, my experience was the same.  I suspect that Tamir Rice’s parents did not give him that message.

    There is a big difference between the current media and entertainment industry and what it was when I was growing up.  Violence and use of weapons is pretty standard fare in many movies and TV shows.  Guns and violence are glorified and glamorized.

    1. Tia Will


      Guns and violence are glorified and glamorized.”

      I don’t know when you grew up so our experiences may vary. I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s and at that time we did not have video games. What we did have was the glorification and glamorization of guns. The difference was the theme of the presentation. Toys were frequently on a cowboys and Indians theme with the cowboys commonly portrayed as the good guys as compared to the evil savages. I can remember clearly my first “six shooter” ( as identified by my dad) and holster. You may be too young to remember the early John Wayne, but I am not. This is nothing new. Only the hero and villains have changed.

      1. hpierce

        Ahhh… the ‘westerns’…  and there were the ‘war’ TV fare… “Combat”… “Rat Patrol”…

        As can be seen on this blog, there is something inherent in the human condition to have conflict, and to strike out to neutralize your adversaries… I played cowboys and indians… I didn’t care what side I was on… sometimes the indians won!  I played “war” (Germans vs. Americans)… it was fun… yeah, we had toy guns, toy bows and arrows… don’t know for sure, but never heard of any of my playmates harming anyone, “for real”…

        So, for some, it appears we never should have toy weapons…  but it appears it is VERY Ok to used words in our verbal conflicts to try to hurt, maim, and win.

        I’m going to see if I can find my dart guns, the rifles that had caps, and shot cork balls, etc., turn them in to have them destroyed/recycled… nah!

        My parents allowed me to have toy guns, and I always knew the difference between those and “real” ones… actually believe that our “play” actually made us more empathetic (being on either side of win-lose)…

        Perhaps we should also ban “toy words”… many use those to try to hurt others, and sometimes those words wound much more deeply than any toy gun ever could…  or, escalate divisiveness…

        I probably had a dozen toy guns growing up… never have owned a real one…

        I get the fact that some realistic toy guns create serious problems (rarely)… yet in the 50’s-60’s, bet that there were NO cases where a child was shot by law enforcement for brandishing a Mattel 6-shooter.  (had one of those, too!)

        Methinks, a complete ban on all ‘toy guns’, is “Much Ado About Nothing”… no way, as a kid, I would have brandished a toy weapon at ANY ‘authority figure’…



      2. TrueBlueDevil

        Tia wrote: “This is nothing new. Only the hero and villains have changed.”

        How true. The liberal media and rent-a-mob have now cast police as the villains, and sometimes criminals as victims. The media will hyperventilate analyzing the 1% or .25% of police shootings that might be in error or criminal, but repeatedly avoid the nightly bloodshed in Chicago and elsewhere.

        Minutes ago, our President cried in the White House in a political speech about gun deaths in his attempt to write laws, but I saw no such emotion after the killings in Paris, San Bernadino, or Kate in San Francisco.

      3. tribeUSA

        Re: Cowboys and Indians,

        Played this many times, and I always took the Indian part. Much funner to be an indian than one of those uptight palefaces!

        I instinctively knew the whites could be worthy opponents, just as fierce as the indians, and many were bullies to boot, and I wanted to scalp a few of these bullies (besides indians were allowed to do a wilder whoop).

        I never thought of indians as the ‘bad’ guys when I was a kid– until about the early 1960s, with a few notable exceptions, most hollywood movies portrayed them as warriors of prowess; seems to me the relationship was not portrayed so much as ‘good’ vs. ‘bad’ but as more of a (rather smug and self-righteous) ‘manifest destiny’ kind of thing.

    2. Alan Miller

      There is a big difference between the current media and entertainment industry and what it was when I was growing up.  Violence and use of weapons is pretty standard fare in many movies and TV shows.

      40’s & 50’s cowboys & Indians movies didn’t have guns?  Seemed they glorified killing “Indians”.  To this day, American continent natives are still pretty shat upon relative to other ethnic groups.


  2. Barack Palin

    As I said earlier, I think the chances that the officers shoot a white kid in a middle class neighborhood are much less under the same circumstances

    I agree, but under the same circumstances a white kid in a middle class neighborhood where white gang violence and shootings occur frequently the story would be the same.  Oh sorry, there’s no such thing.

  3. Frankly

    I have a few thoughts.

    Squirt guns, nerf guns, paintball guns, video games.  This article is missing a bunch of related products and perspectives.

    Although I get the point of this article, kids playing with toy guns can provide them a chance to learn about guns and how to handle guns.

    And they can be a lot of fun.

    We once had a family next door with a young boy about our son’s age.  His hippyish mother came knocking on the door one day and informed us that her son would no longer be allowed to play with our two sons unless we, the parents, would ensure that no guns were used in their play.  Apparently their son was so smitten with the previous water gun battles that had raged in our back yard that he was demanding a weapon of his own.   We said “sorry, but we cannot do that.”   About a week later that boy was riding his trike in the cul-de-sac pointing a stick at and “shooting” at imaginary bad-guys.  I’m sure his mom blamed us, but my guess is that he was born with the instinct for this type of play.

    Frankly, (because I am), I think it is silly to ban guns as toys except in war zones (which I think many US urban neighborhoods are).  But I do agree with laws that require all toy guns to have a bright orange tip.  In fact, I would not have a problem with all toy guns having to be a color other than black or silver.

    But liberals and hippies are silly if they think that play guns have anything to do with gun violence, or that kids playing with guns increases their life-long danger of dying from a gun shot.  Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.

    If liberals and hippies really want to stop gun death they would outlaw people.

    1. Barack Palin

      Maybe Obama can decree from his throne that anyone buying a toy gun has to go through an extensive  background check?  Or we might look into a special Davis toy gun tax?

      1. Frankly

        Ha!  Thanks for the laugh.  The toy gun tax.  Had not thought of that, but since they are apparently bad for our health, I am surprised Tia didn’t either.

      2. TrueBlueDevil

        Has anyone ever produced a report about how many killings are committed by gangs?

        How many are committed by young men reared without fathers, and those with in-the-home fathers?

        How many shootings are committed by public housing residents?

        1. Tia Will


          Has anyone ever produced a report about how many killings are committed by gangs?

          How many are committed by young men reared without fathers, and those with in-the-home fathers?

          How many shootings are committed by public housing residents?

          I think it is much more basic than the groups that you have chosen to highlight. The vast majority of gun related deaths and injuries are at the hands of men. So using your rationale, shouldn’t we simply focus on this group so as to keep the much less likely to use a gun in a crime women safe ?

  4. Alan Miller

    When I was growing up, my parents never let us have toy guns.

    When I was growing up, we had bee bee guns, cap guns with gunpowder, fire crackers, bottle rockets,  army men wars, and rode bicycles without helmets.  Dad taught me how to kill squirrels with a pellet rifle.

    After I pass, my lawyers will release the memoirs on where all the bodies are buried.

      1. Frankly

        Forgive my musical liberal brutha from another mutha… he only thinks with the left side of his brain.  If the right side would get some juice, he would quickly get that a Republican in the White House doing the same for a right-leaning agenda would cause him to play the perpetual blues.

      2. hpierce

        Actually, Trump (and to a lesser extent, Cruz) are promising their supporters exactly that.

        The way things are trending, come November, S&G words will be more poignant:  “laugh about it, shout about it, when you have to choose, anyway you look at it you lose…”

        Coo, coo chachew…

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