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Readin’, wRitin’ and Rifles

More recent proof that schools, guns and the way we're teaching our kids doesn't add up.

I’m about to reopen the Pandora’s box of opinion column writing:  this “Patch In” is going to be about guns and school.

Readers of my Wilton column, “From the Driver’s Seat,” will remember the firestorm I kicked up when I took on the subject of  I wrote last year. That one got picked up nationally and landed me on something called the “Bang List” of an ultra right-wing pro-gun group. Faithful readers might be saying, “Uh oh, here she goes again.”

What emboldens me enough to delve into the topic again, exactly one year later, are recent news stories about a couple of gun-related events in schools around the country.  One was the terribly tragic tale of an 8th grader in Texas who was killed when he brandished a gun he’d brought to school—police shot him twice after he reportedly threatened to kill everyone with what turned out to be a pellet gun.

According to published reports, 15-year-old Jaime Gonzalez was thought of as a good kid, one who’d never gotten into serious trouble before this incident, despite living in a rougher neighborhood not immune to gang issues. Police said that despite their urgent requests for him to put the weapon down, Gonzalez failed to comply and they were forced to shoot him; they also said they acted “appropriately” for the situation.

Questions remained as to where Jaime got the gun and what prompted the actions that many called ‘out of character’ for the boy. What drove him to make that choice to bring a gun to school?

Another story about kids and guns caught my eye in the last week or two. Ten-year-old Nicholas Taylor of Smyrna, Tennessee was punished for mixing school and gun play of a different sort: after he turned his lunchtime slice of pizza into the shape of a gun and pretended to shoot it, the boy was punished for threatening his schoolmates. He was made to eat separately at a ‘silent table’ for several days and had to take gun safety class with the school resource officer.

The key difference in these two events, aside from the sad fact that a child was killed in one? The word pretend. 

The fascination of some individuals in this country with protecting gun rights, mixed with the entertainment media’s glorification of violence comes into sharp contradiction with the extreme politically correct over-reaction of other groups who try to prevent kids from even expressing curiosity about the word ‘gun’.

When I was a younger, first-time new mom, I had planned on being rabid about the way we treated the subject in our home. I vowed to raise our son to think that even saying the word ‘gun’ was bad, and swore we’d never have guns as toys. Heaven-forbid he ever formed a gun with his finger and his thumb, it wasn’t something we’d ever allow him to do twice!

And then I wised up. Correction, I read the book The Trouble with Boys after attending an amazing lecture by the book’s author, reporter Peg Tyre, and then I wised up. Among so many worthy topics on the subject of gender and school, Tyre writes about the kind of play kids (especially boys) use to work out their ideas about social justice, good vs. evil, and right from wrong. And she examines how educators can overreact to kids who talk about it while at school without first determining whether there are more serious issues at hand.

Her writing helped me work out some more nuanced ways about talking about guns with my children, about understanding what pretend gun play was, and about how I could talk to them at different developmental ages about what real guns do when in the hands of the wrong people.

We’ve since had fun playing with water guns and Nerf guns at home, and we have also learned to talk about how toy guns are different from the real thing. We’ve talked about what to do if they ever hear a friend offer to show them a gun and how we feel about the issue. My children know why we’ll never buy a water gun as a gift for a friend—to us it’s up to their friends’ parents about what gun-like toys are appropriate in their own homes. And my kids know to be gracious if they ever receive one as a gift themselves.

Sadly, there are times when real guns do cross over into the schoolyard, and in extreme cases like Columbine or other events that make the news, our nation’s oppositional approaches and attitudes to guns show just how skewed—and screwed up—the situation is.

Rather than more intensive laws to better control access to firearms; rather than better education about handling, care and dangers of firearms; and rather than a more enlightened, educated approach to children and their concepts of real vs. pretend guns, we’re left with sometimes messy, sometimes tragic results.

Seems we might want to revisit the basic A-B-Cs of how kids and guns should or shouldn’t mix and because the equation isn’t adding up now. Instead, we’re hearing more stories of kids sneaking guns into schools—sometimes with tragic results—and looking at a failing grade when it comes to common sense.

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