I know -- I sound like a representative of the NRA.
In reality, nothing could be further from the truth; I actually think some gun control is a good thing. But we're not talking politics here; we're talking boys. And when it comes to gun play, I think our best bet is to seize the teachable moment.
Without being all preachy -- because, as William Pollack, PhD, author of Real Boys says, "the last thing you want to do is shame your child" -- explain what guns are. Explain what they are for --and what they are not.
And then, whether you want to or not, discuss gun safety. My biggest fear, when I see my 3-year-old pick up a plastic gun and "shoot" his brothers, is that he would do the same exact thing if he found a real gun. Sadly enough, it's a distinct possibility.
A 2001 study published in Pediatrics was called, "Seeing is Believing: What Do Boys Do When They Find a Real Gun?" The investigators paired up boys, ages eight to twelve, and placed them in a room with two water pistols and an actual .380 caliber handgun. The weapons were all concealed in separate drawers. Using a one-way mirror, the investigators had a first-hand glimpse of how boys would behave when they found a real gun. (It's worth noting here that EXTENSIVE safety controls were in place.)
Sixteen of twenty-one groups of boys who found the real gun handled it. In ten of the groups, one or more of the boys pulled the trigger.
It's a sobering study, one that clearly points the need to responsible gun ownership. If you have a gun, make sure it is properly locked up at all times; if having boys has taught me anything, it's that they can find anything they're not supposed to find. (And nothing they're supposed to. Are shoes really THAT hard to find?)
Ask about guns and gun security as well. If your son is going to be playing at a friend's house, you need to know whether or not there are guns in the home -- and I'm not talking plastic guns; I'm talking real guns that can really hurt. If the friends are gun owners (and you'd be surprised how many people are), ask about how the guns are secured. If you're not happy with the answer -- or just don't feel good about your son playing in a home where there are guns -- invite the friend over to your house instead.
Most importantly, review over and over and over again what to do if your son finds a gun. Ask him what he'd do if he found a gun other than the colorful plastic ones he sees laying around the neighborhood. If the answer is, "give it to an adult," -- WRONG! Stress that he should never -- ever -- touch an unknown gun. Tell him that he should immediately call an adult and let the adult handle the situation.
Each year, over 1000 children are killed by guns. Don't let your son be one of them.