Despite several major gun shows being canceled in Virginia due to the ban on large gatherings because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Virginia gun sales rocketed to a new monthly record in March (80,000). The increase in the purchase of guns has brought back a similar concern that a lot of us felt in January when a pro-gun rally was held at our capital in Richmond, Virginia. Kate Bredimus' words ring just as true today as they did on MLK day. Since you are quarantined at home with your children, they are hearing the news and feeling your anxieties - may her words help guide some of the hard conversations you may be having with your children.
Last year, my husband and I took our five-year old triplet boys on a road trip to New Orleans for spring break. That sentence is absurd, but whatever, it happened. To break up the trip, we stopped for a night in Georgia to stay with my cousin. Her son is just a year older than my guys, and the four of them instantly connected in the way young boys do—by ordering Alexa to make fart noises and shooting each other in the face with Nerf guns.
In New Orleans, we took the boys on a streetcar ride down St. Charles to the French Quarter. We bought them Shirley Temples in Jackson Square and watched the street performers do their thing. We went on a swamp tour, tickled baby alligators and ate beignets at Café du Monde. We let them grab beaded necklaces off the ground, even though we knew they’d catch syphilis. We introduced them to Parkway poboys, took them to see a blues band in the Marigny and set them free at Audubon Park, where they climbed live oaks and tossed Spanish moss at each other under a prawn-colored sunset.
We did all this and more, and then, on the way home after four days of non-stop bon temps, we listened as they went on and on about THE GODDAMN NERF GUNS.
I don’t like guns. Period, point blank. They trigger me. (By the way, have you ever stopped to think how many gun references there are in our lexicon? You should give it a shot.)
As an avid gun un-enthusiast and mother of three boys, living in the most heavily armed country in the world, I have my work cut out for me. Every day I have to counter a culture that stretches back millennia to the first caveman who presented his son with a Nerf gun carved from stone. With boys, violence is a birthright, and we normalize it from the jump. We slide little plastic soldiers with machine guns into their hands. We give them toy handguns filled with water, and pellet guns to bruise their friends with. Then, when they’ve reached the ripe old age of six, we take them to the shooting range and pat ourselves on the back for teaching them how to defend themselves—gliding past the statistics on accidental self-shootings by children versus their successful takedowns of home intruders.
But oh, how my sons long for Nerf guns. “They’re not even real!” they cry.
“Yes, but I think it’s weird to create a toy for a child that looks like a thing used to kill people,” I tell them.
“OK” they mumble, then wander out in the backyard to make an AK-47 out of sticks.
Some might argue that it is possible to hold two truths in the same hand: One, that shooting innocent people is wrong; and two, that shooting innocent people with foam bullets is awesome. That’s fine, but my sons can’t even count backwards from 10. Nuance isn’t their strong suit.
We live in a crazy, violent society, but I don’t want my kids to think they need to be armed to be strong. I don’t want them to buy into the Kevin McAllister myth of self-defense.1 I don’t want them trying to fantasize about taking down bad guys.2 But mostly, I don’t want their last moments on Earth to be spent cowering under a desk in terror, because we make it so damn easy for anyone to have a gun.
The fight I’m fighting starts at home and goes through the toy aisles of Target, the streets of Sanford and Newtown, and all the way up to the Supreme Court.
It’s an ugly one. Here in Richmond, the Virginia Citizens Defense League held their annual lobby for gun rights on MLK Day--gathering at the Capitol with assault rifles and Confederate flags, wearing military-grade combat gear on a day set aside to honor a black leader who was shot to death.
Because of new legislation tightening gun restrictions, this year’s rally drew huge numbers of Second Amendment folks, including the NRA, who handed out free ammunition like it was candy corn. In the days leading up to the rally, the FBI arrested three members of a Neo-Nazi organization, the governor declared a state of emergency, and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence cancelled its annual vigil amid safety concerns.
It was a real blast.
I spent the day as MLK Jr. would have wanted—giving the finger to a car with a bumper sticker that said, “Gun control is hitting your target” and arguing with people on Facebook.
“Martin Luther King Jr. was all about peace, and he would have been happy to see a peaceful rally” one person wrote.
“Wearing combat gear and carrying assault weapons isn’t an act of peace, it’s an act of intimidation,” I typed back as my fingers caught on fire. “And it’s easy for a protest to be peaceful when counter-protesters don’t show up out of fear. P.S. you’re a dumbass.” I paused, then backspaced over the last sentence.
I could stand to be a little more like MLK Jr. I’m trying. My kids are trying, too.
The world is pushing and pulling them in different directions, teaching them rules it immediately breaks. It’s a world where they can pick up a fake rifle and shoot a character in a video game, and also write a letter to a schoolmate who was gunned down while playing outside:
“I’m sorry you are dead, Markiya, but we still love you. Do you like to sing?”
In this world, where lessons are never learned, my sons are listening, questioning everything they hear, and trying to make sense of all the mixed messages. It’s shameful we haven’t solved this problem for our kids—that we’d rather construct elaborate strawman scenarios about self-defense and pontificate on our right to bear arms than look at a single statistic or meet a bereaved parent halfway with a couple common sense laws.
I don’t have the answer here, but I suspect part of it begins with who we make our heroes. Maybe it should be less of the guys in capes throwing punches, and more of the ones whose dreams are so big they change the world, or the ones who have the grit to sacrifice everything for the good of someone else, or the ones who witness senseless violence and rise to meet it with wisdom and compassion and a link to some unbiased third-party research.
For a six-year-old, the hero could also be a Dalmatian named Marshall from a show called “Paw Patrol.” My son wrote a book about him, and stood up in front of his class to read it. The plot was predictable, but we lavished him with compliments, knowing how gentle his heart is and how much shyness he had to overcome to speak his truth.
He beamed with pride under our praise. “Am I like Martin Luther King?” he asked us.
He didn’t say Spider-Man, or Wayne LaPierre. He said Martin Luther King. As soon as those words passed his lips, I knew I must be an amazing woman.
It probably makes some people sad that my children will only be able to shoot for the stars metaphorically because of my extreme views. It’s fine. We’ll be OK. Because I know they will ultimately understand that “strong” can’t be about how much weaponry you have stockpiled, or how willing you are to hurt other people to make your point. Strong has to be about how able you are to check your violence, lay down arms, and bend, Nerfless, towards kindness.
It’s the only shot we’ve got.
1Let’s throw a fact in here: according to a 2015 study by Harvard, only 0.9% of people used guns to defend themselves between 2007 and 2011.
2 One more fact from the National Bureau of Economic Research: allowing citizens to carry handguns can increase violent crime between 13-15%.
Kate started her writing career as a music journalist, where she learned about Brazilian jiu jitsu from David Lee Roth. Thinking she was more of a Kid Rock kind of gal (she wasn’t), Kate joined the Atlantic Records team as a content manager, before moving over to Starwood Hotels & Resorts to work as a copywriter.
After dodging taxis and eating more than a healthy amount of pizza in New York, she returned to Virginia to find a home at Elevation Advertising as an ACD/senior copywriter. There, she leads creative teams, develops brand architecture and messaging frameworks, concepts and builds integrated campaigns, script writes like the devil and knocks out digital and print content with the skill and poise of a jiu jitsu fighter.