Melt the Guns
Talking to kids about violence
I have distant relatives who use guns as toys. I don’t see them often anymore. But when we used to spend winter holidays together, the men sometimes took the older boys out into an open field to shoot at targets. The whole arrangement made my body hot and furious. My kids were babies then, so I never had to contend with the choice of whether to send them to the field or not. But if I had, I would not have let them go. Couldn’t these men see they were teaching boys that violence and domination was part of growing up and being a man?
After Uvalde last week, American gun culture kept coming back to me in different forms. I went to the dollar store to buy some trinkets for my daughter’s first grade class. The next day, I was to chaperone a field trip to a community garden—a field trip that happened to land on my daughter’s 7th birthday. Apparently, many parents now bring “goodie bags” to school for the whole class when their child has a birthday, a trend that feels annoying to me for many reasons, but I wanted to give my daughter’s class a fun day after such a hard week. I walked up and down the aisles of the dollar store aimlessly, looking for little toys, until I found myself standing in front of a huge display of plastic water guns. I pictured myself buying all of them, gathering them together in my own field, melting them down.
I don’t understand the use of guns as toys. Ever since I became a mother, I have found it upsetting. In parenting, there are few things I am decisive about, but I don’t let my kids play guns or with guns. I don’t endorse violence as play. I don’t plan to let my kids play violent video games, though many other parents have lectured me about my misguided ways, telling me my kids will just sneak off and play-shoot avatars anyway, or that I’ll give in, in time.
As an adjunct writing teacher, I have read my share of college essays about how “video games don’t make people violent.” Anecdotally, in my classes, these essays have almost always been written by young white boys who are trying to understand the pleasure they find in playing with death, war, and rape. But I understand that many other countries have cultures of violence; they play with squirt guns and shoot people in video games and don’t see the scale of tragedy we see in America. There are many reasons for this: America’s gun exceptionalism is well-documented.
Of course I know my kids will eventually have to find their own way—that I cannot lock down how they play or what they play with or who they play with forever. Still, I feel frustrated with the general resistance to maybe just cooling it with the gun play for a bit. Kids don’t see guns the way adults do, they just like aiming at things, I’ve heard. Some have told me that boys, especially, love to aim at things, need to, that their desire for target practice is a biological drive. Like the phallic gesture is in their nature. And outlawing anything in the home, some say, will just make your kids want it more.
I’ve spent some time reading the disinformation spread by the Right in major publications that I’m not going to name here because I don’t want to be trolled. These essays tend to be poorly supported and convoluted. They talk about why the Australian approach won’t work for the US. The reasoning in these essays sounds quite a bit like what I’ve heard about kids playing with plastic guns: human nature / people will rebel even more aggressively against government restrictions / playing wild wild West is fun and part of what it means to be an American.
I don’t know that any of my parenting approaches are right or best, and I don’t judge anyone with a squirt gun in their yard, but I do think it’s worth noting how our parenting philosophies replicate the rhetoric of these political conversations. Little water shooters have found their way into our house, of course. I quietly throw them away when no one is looking.
Lately, we have been talking about guns in our house much more. Now that my kids are starting to venture out into the world of playdates, I also have to ask parents whether they have guns in their homes. I suspect some friendships will fizzle according to what I find out—some already have. Maybe this isn’t fair—my low tolerance for gun ownership. But it’s one element of parental agency I am trying to hold on to.
In April, after six people were killed in a downtown Sacramento shooting, I drafted a piece for this newsletter on gun culture in America. My daughter and I had visited Sacramento that weekend for a one-night trip, the day after the shooting, a trip we had planned months earlier. That shooting was complicated by American racism and a failure to address the housing crisis in Sacramento, and I didn’t have the capacity that week to parse out all these issues responsibly, so I held the essay.
But I wrote in my draft:
When I woke up on Sunday morning, I had a series of texts and notifications on my phone: there had been a mass shooting in Sacramento, just a few blocks from where my daughter and I planned to stay that night.
We went through with the trip anyway, after I assessed all the incoming information, and I decided to tell my daughter the truth about why I was fretting and distracted and staring into my phone for answers all morning.
I’m not sure the words I used— something about a person with a gun who had hurt people. She wanted to know whether people were killed. I said some were, yes. She kept coloring, pressing her crayon harder into the paper. I wondered why I was telling her this, how she would remember this conversation.
That night, we went to see the musical Wicked, and during intermission, I over-editorialized the show, frenetically stressing what turns people “bad,” how we’re all good inside, trying to relay the world just the right way.
Before bed that night, my daughter asked me about the “man” (she assumed? or maybe I told her?) who had killed people nearby. She asked if he was caught. She asked if he was in jail. She asked what kind of door locked him in, assuming that door kept her safe. What if he shot through the door? she asked. Could he get out? Guns aren’t allowed in prison, I said.
My kids know I don’t believe the prison system keeps us safe. They get heavy eye rolls and narrative corrections from me whenever they play any jailing games. What if you talked to the bad guy and offered him some resources instead? We also have honest conversations about racism and policing. But that night in Sacramento, I told her the shooter had been caught because I wanted her to feel safe, even though I wasn’t sure if anyone had been charged (in fact, there were multiple shooters and they not at that time been detained). I didn’t want her to think incarceration actually kept any of us safe—it doesn’t—but right then, I wasn’t sure what else to say, while she was drifting off to sleep, worried.
The next day, we walked the streets of downtown Sacramento, broken glass crunching under our feet, just blocks from where the shooting had occurred. My whole body was on high alert for the 48 hours we spent in town, not only from fear, but from guilt that we were enjoying, or trying, these hours together, just steps from where six people had died. At the end of our walk around town, we passed a vigil. I hurried my daughter along, no longer wanting to talk about it.
After Uvalde, I struggled. I didn’t want to tell my daughter what had happened. For a few days, I said nothing. We rarely have the news on in our house, and my husband and I kept our voices low and quiet when we talked about what had happened. Mostly, we saved our expressions of grief for after the kids had gone to sleep.
What was I supposed to tell my younger child, my four-year-old, after all? He thinks guns are “bad,” and I have worked hard to explain my reasoning in kid speak. But there isn’t much one can say to tamp down the horror of 19 children and 2 teachers being killed by what my daughter has been taught to call, during school drills, an “intruder.”
When I finally sat my daughter down this time, alone, I told her that some people had been hurt very far away, in another state, our Sacramento conversation in mind. She busied herself, not wanting to talk about it. When she gets anxious, she does this. Pushes the world away. I do too. I asked her if she wanted to know more. She did not. I asked if she had heard anything at school. She had not. I asked if she didn’t like talking about things like this. She did not.
A few days later, she said she was ready for me to tell her what happened. She was curled up on my bed, reading at night, a time when we often check in about the day and talk. I could tell you here what I said, what I didn’t say, what I should have said. But as I was writing this, I realized that maybe that’s not what other parents need to hear right now, and maybe that’s not the point of this particular piece of writing.
As I have written before, the linguistic work of raising kids, the work of figuring it out, of telling the story of the world, while leaving room for some other future version of it, is one of the most creative acts we perform while caring for kids. It’s also some of the hardest work we do as parents, and it’s often what radicalizes us.
Motherhood, especially, radicalizes us because we have to care in a world that shows it doesn’t care about us, and caring is the most radical act there is in a culture of misogynistic, masculine violence.
As I tried to tell the story of the most recent violent event in this country to my oldest kid, what I struggled with most this time was what I always struggle with most: leaving open the door to another world, without telling my daughter things that were not true.
Lately, it’s been hard to see a way out of this mess. Trying to find a way out, I have spent a lot of time passively digging around the internet. In the process, I became obsessed with the question of whether or not the guns collected by the Australian government after the Port Arthur massacre were melted or simply ground down, especially after seeing this design by Carson Ellis (side note: Books Are Magic is selling merch with the design, all proceeds going to Everytown):
In part, my hunt for this bit of information was a deflection from the overwhelming grief and sadness and anger and futility I have been feeling. But I also needed some other image to hold—a practical and possible picture of what the destruction of violence could look like here in America.
It’s well documented that American gun culture is an atrocity and our failure to respond is just a reoccurring joke at this point. And there is clear precedent for changing this kind of culture. The American Right will have you believe that translating the Australian buyback program into an American context would look like living in a militarized state: the image they choose to hold is often of guns being confiscated by military personnel banging on doors, raiding citizens’ homes. And they are very good at telling these warped stories.
In Australia, there were similar concerns:
There were fears that the mandatory buyback would provoke resistance: During one address to a crowd of gun rights supporters, Howard wore a bulletproof vest. Thankfully, fears of violence turned out to be unfounded. About 650,000 legally owned guns were peacefully seized, then destroyed, as part of the buyback.
There are those that argue that America is different, and it is. But such statements are also a dismissal of an alternative vision.
Though I’ve found some references to smelting in my research, the most tangible images of the gun destruction process I have found are in this video, on which I have been meditating, as a way to leave the door open.
When I think about how central violence is to American life, like many of you, I’m filled with rage and fury and futility. But I find this video incredibly soothing. It’s a reminder that another world is possible.
I haven’t done a good list of recomendations/links in bit, so here are some pieces that I’ve been cherishing:
These reflections by parents on how they are talking to their children about Uvalde
This conversation between Sara Petersen and Lauren Smith Brody on community care and activism
Malwina Gudowska on Jazmina Barrera’s Linea Nigra, translation, motherhood, and the body
Amil Niazi on looking for depression in her kid
Melinda Wenner Moyer on asking other parents about guns in the home and other ways to protect kids from gun violence. Also check out Virginia Sole Smith’s IG stories, where she’s been talking about this, and her giving circle, which is raising money for a blue majority in Arizona
Katie Gutierrez on screaming for change
And one more find from my research: