Santa Monica: Fake firearms are a focus of gun debate for activists
By Vince Echavaria
As legislators continue to debate gun laws in wake of the Newtown, Conn. shootings, some local activists want to shift part of the focus onto weapons used for play.
Last month’s tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School where 20 first-graders and six school employees were killed, as well as other mass shootings last year, are cause to reinitiate a campaign against toy guns, they say.
While he expressed support for efforts to ban assault weapons, Santa Monica resident and activist Jerry Rubin believes the debate should include what he says are the negative impacts that playing with toy guns can have on children.
He was joined by Michelle Phillips, a founding member of the popular 1960s music group, The Mamas and Papas, psychiatrist Dr. Carole Lieberman, and Santa Monica-Malibu school district board member Oscar de la Torre at a news conference on the Third Street Promenade Jan. 11 to call attention to concerns of toy gun effects on children.
Many toy guns, while containing a red tip to signify they are fake, can still pose a danger to those holding them if a police officer mistakes them for being the real thing, Rubin said.
“It goes without saying that we have to double our efforts to curb the escalation of the real guns, the AK-47 guns that no one needs. But we have to be concerned about the toy guns as well, the realistic looking toy guns that police know still pose a danger,” Rubin said.
Anti-toy gun activists were instrumental in helping to approve a ban on the sale and distribution of realistic looking toy firearms in Burbank 25 years ago, and later in Los Angeles and Santa Monica, Rubin said. Even with the red tips, many of the replica guns continue to look too realistic, said Rubin, who encourages adults to get rid of the toys and not enable their children to play with them.
Children who are given toy guns as gifts by their parents may think it’s okay to act out shooting their friends, he said.
“Why should our precious children think it’s okay to run around pretending to kill their fellow classmates and friends? Why is pretending to kill each other acceptable?” Rubin asked.
In keeping with that message, the event was also held to promote the group’s no toy guns merit award project, which offers personalized merit award certificates to children and families who pledge to not have or support toy guns.
Phillips said she got involved with the anti-toy gun campaign nearly 30 years ago when her son was 4, pledging not to give him a toy gun as a gift. She urged parents to think twice about if their child should be playing with fake weapons rather than some other toy.
“There are so many alternatives to a gun. It is a philosophy really, that you don’t encourage children to play with weapons of destruction,” Phillips said.
In addition to playing with toy firearms at a young age, many children are exposed to other forms of violent media including, TV, video games and movies, Lieberman noted. According to the media psychiatrist, some studies on the impact of violent media have shown that the more violent media children and adults are exposed to, the more aggressive they become. Some studies have indicated that some people experience physical changes in the brain when they consume media violence, she said.
Lieberman stressed that most children who play with toy guns and violent media don’t grow up to be killers but says the toys can act as a gateway to violent behavior. “Toy guns are usually given to children when they are very young. So that is like the entry drug to a culture of violence,” the doctor said.
Rubin reiterated that there is a larger campaign on efforts to crack down on assault weapons but said it’s important to consider the possible effects toy guns have on youth. “We support the assault weapon ban being brought back again and understand it’s the real guns that do the damage. But we have to be concerned about our kids at the earliest stage,” he said.
De la Torre, the founder of the Pico Youth and Family Center, which works with at-risk youth, noted that the organization was created in response to four homicides and five shootings that occurred in the city. “Homicide is no game; any time a young person is killed in our city or throughout the country we have parents and family members that live with permanent pain,” he said.
Toy guns, along with movies, video games and other media violence are desensitizing young people, de la Torre said. Parents must work to address the problem in a real way and more awareness and education on the issue needs to be brought into the classrooms, he said.
“We have an obligation to deal with the root cause of the problem; we can’t just deal with the symptoms,” he said.