I live in St. Louis, a city that is filled with lots of family-friendly places where children can run, jump, explore, inquire and create. Expansive parks, free museums and zoo, musical shows for children and multiple science learning centers are just a few of places that enhance the physical, social and intellectual development of our children.
However, for all of the fabulous places that make St. Louis a welcoming place for children, there is another dimension to this city that regularly gives me pause: it is one of the most deadly cities in the country.
In 2011 and 2012, 113 people died from gun violence. In 2012, 43 of those people were under the age of 25. These numbers are alarmingly high due to St. Louis’ modest size population of 318,000 people. Gun violence is largely concentrated in parts of the city that are disproportionately black and poor, but its reverberations are often felt around the metro area.
And in all of these spaces, children are present. Too many of St. Louis’ children have heard gunshots, know someone who has been shot or have witnessed a shooting. This reality is a far cry from the idealistic image of children playing freely without having to duck and run for cover.
Yet in the midst of this, there are some children that are given toy guns to play with. A few weeks ago, I was driving home and a young boy decided to point his water gun at my car as I drove slowly past his apartment building. I stopped my car, rolled down my widow and said, “Young man, guns are not toys. Never point a gun at someone.”
He stood shell-shocked while his mother came outside and started yelling at him for pointing the gun. I was stunned, because it is likely that she permitted him to have the water gun, and what did she think he would do with it? s parents and caregivers, we have the power to choose what we put in our children’s hands.
Moreover, there can be dire consequences. A team of pediatric specialists at St. Louis Children’s Hospital have cited the case of a “4-year-old boy who found a handgun in a closet at home, placed the barrel into his mouth and pulled the trigger as he had often done to get a drink from his water-pistol.”.
Why, in a city that has the some of the highest incidents of gun violence in the nation, would we encourage our children to pretend to be violent? Why do we expect young children to know the difference between a real gun and a fake one? Whywould we want our children pretendingto do the very thing that has decimated black and poor communities across this country?
Recently, a coalition of St. Louis-area faith communities and organizations has joined forces to host a Toy Gun Buy Back Exchange Day. On July 13, local children can bring their toy guns and other violence-simulating toys/videos and exchange them for a non-violent toy. The goal of the initiative is to change the way our children play.
For more information, go to www.toygunbuyback.org.
Leah Gunning Francis, Ph.D. is assistant professor of Christian Education at Eden Theological Seminary. She is married to Rev. Rodney Francis, pastor of Washington Tabernacle Baptist Church, and they live in St. Louis with their two sons.