Toy Guns: Yay or Nay?

Teaching kids firearm safety is serious business; where do toy guns fall in?

by posted on April 22, 2022
Child Holding Nerf Gun

It might seem like a stupid question at first: Should kids be allowed to play with toy guns? Every rural and suburban kid of my generation (Gen X) grew up with a toy arsenal of pop guns, snap guns, plastic guns, wooden replicas and sticks vaguely shaped like guns. We ran around playing all sorts of gun-related games. It was what kids did, and no one thought anything of it.

I grew up in a family that hunted. Guns were a normal, everyday part of life for us, and toy guns fit right into that. Dad had one strict rule about toy guns, though: “We don’t point guns at people.” (He later expanded it to include the dog.) It was his way of imparting gun safety from a very young age, and it was serious business in our house.

So you can imagine my surprise when, decades later, my sister and I walked into my parents’ house and found Dad hiding in a pillow fort and my young nephew barricaded behind the couch, “shooting” at each other with little plastic revolvers.

“Uh, Dad? What the heck happened to ‘We don’t point guns at people?’” one of us asked. He grinned sheepishly and replied, “Well, see, we were playing cops and robbers!” Typical grandpa, letting the grandkids get away with things his own children never did. But it got me thinking about toy guns and how we handle them.

First, a Word About Age
Obviously, how you handle toy guns (or not) in your house will depend on the age and maturity of the child. If you have toddlers or young children who can’t fully understand the difference between fantasy and reality, or real vs. toy, you might choose to hold off on toy guns altogether or introduce them with strict rules about where they can be used and what they can be pointed at. Older kids who are able to distinguish between real and play are better equipped to handle Nerf guns and water guns and other toy versions of “shooting” at each other. You’ll need to gauge your child’s maturity level when you decide how to handle toy guns in the home.

Toy Guns: The Cons
The major con about toy guns (and I’m speaking of obvious toys—not realistic-looking airsoft guns, which are another matter) is the disconnect between “never let the muzzle cover anything you’re not willing to destroy” and “now go shoot your brother with foam darts.” Isn’t it contradictory to teach kids, especially very young ones, that we never let the muzzle cover anything we’re not willing to destroy—unless it’s this kind of gun and not that kind of gun, or unless we’re playing cops and robbers, or unless this, unless that? If you’re trying to instill the rules of gun safety into your kids—as you absolutely should be regardless if you own a firearm or not—there’s no room for gray area, at least when they are young.

The other con I see with toy guns, related to the first, is that your kids are building habits, and toy guns lend themselves to sloppy gun-handling habits—poor trigger discipline, haphazard storage and more. It seems ridiculous to you and I that someone who casually goofs around with toy guns might transfer some of those habits to real firearms, but we’re talking about young kids here. 

Toy Guns: The Pros
I’ve written before about how I introduced my daughter to squirrel hunting by letting her follow me around the woods carrying her toy pop gun when she was about 4 or 5. It was a great way to reinforce the gun safety rules we’d been teaching her since she was old enough to understand. In this case, we used the toy gun to help build good gun-handling habits.

Another pro of toy guns is something I harp on in all sorts of situations: It helps to normalize gun ownership. We don’t want to treat guns too casually, but we do want our kids (and society at large, which is a bigger issue) to see guns as tools that normal people use everyday in a safe manner. They’re to be respected and enjoyed, but neither feared nor revered. They’re just tools. And if playing with toy guns helps get your kids excited to go to the range or the woods with you and safely shoot real guns under close supervision, that’s awesome.

Both of those pros are great, but let’s be honest. The primary benefit most of us get from owning toy guns is simpler: They’re fun. Who doesn’t love a good water gun battle on a hot summer day?

What to Do
As mentioned, how you handle toy guns in your home will depend on your children’s ages. My daughter had plastic toy guns since she was in diapers (mostly gifts from grandparents), and that was perfectly OK with me. We did follow a strict “No pointing guns at people or the dog” policy for years, and I helped her remember the rules of gun safety even with toys. She was allowed to point her guns at imaginary bad guys, the taxidermy mounts on the wall and rabbits in the backyard, but we held off on Nerf guns and anything that actually shoots a projectile and is meant to be fired at people until she was older and understood the difference between playing and reality. It was a good compromise that let us enjoy the fun of toy guns while using them to reinforce, not contradict, safe gun handling rules.

Am I overthinking this whole subject? Yeah, maybe. You might simply see toy guns as pure fun and pooh-pooh the whole idea that they can reinforce bad habits, or you might hate the idea that guns are even associated with toys because you see guns as something to be always taken with the highest level of seriousness. There’s not really a wrong answer as long as you’re teaching your kids the rules of gun safety so they’re prepared when it comes time to shoot for real.

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