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«Biology and the particular gun culture of the United States come together to ex- plain the persistent and powerful attraction of American boys to ...»

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Gun Play

Jay Mechling

Biology and the particular gun culture of the United States come together to ex-

plain the persistent and powerful attraction of American boys to both real guns

and toy guns. The 1990s saw adults begin to conflate “the gun problem” with “the

boy problem,” sparking attempts (largely failed) to banish toy guns from homes

and schools. Following the approach of play scholar Gregory Bateson, this article

offers an understanding of play with guns, maintains this moral panic about boys and gun play is unfounded, and suggests some developmental and other benefits from boys’ play with guns.

It was a beauty. It was a simple machine—a single-shot, bolt-action,.22- caliber rifle—and it was lying on the table among the other Bingo prizes I was playing for that summer we visited family friends stationed at the Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. I wanted to win that rifle, to bring it home and recreate the exhilarating experience from the previous summer of 1957, when at Boy Scout camp, I fired my first rifle—.22-caliber short ammu- nition, also—at paper targets. I never won any of the Bingo games that would send me to that particular table of prizes, nor is it likely that my parents would have permitted me to bring a rifle home to Miami Beach, Florida. But I craved owning that real rifle.

I had a hard enough time persuading my parents to let me have a Daisy BB gun. They finally relented, and I loved that gun. I set up targets safely in the backyard, loaded those BBs into the pump-action rifle’s chamber, and fired away—never at an animal, never at a human, as I promised. I oiled the gun diligently, and although a BB gun is a real enough gun (it can “put out an eye,” as every parent warned), I also knew that it was not the “real thing.” As a sub- urban kid reared far from the country and far from a gun culture of hunters, real guns seemed to me powerful talismans, something always just outside my reach.

My baby-boom youth was not unique. Judging from the number of adver- tisements for Daisy BB guns in comic books and in magazines aimed at boys, © 2008 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois 193 Gun Play there was a real market for this particular “toy” gun, a gun that lay somewhere in the liminal zone between the toy gun and the real thing. For the baby boom boys born between 1946 and 1964, having a Daisy BB gun was the least of the socialization into the gun culture of the United States. Standard television fare in the 1950s consisted of World War II films and American Westerns, and the films and serials in the theaters offered more of the same. There was lots of gun play in the Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, and even Sky King weekly episodes, and, for the slightly older boy and his parents, CBS broadcast the “adult” Western, Gunsmoke.

The toy soldiers of earlier wars had been made of metal, usually lead or tin, and were often hobby or collector items as much as play pieces. Thanks to the advances in plastics in the 1930s and 1940s, the toy soldiers made for reenacting World War II on a boy’s bedroom floor or in the backyard in the 1950s came in a vast and cheap abundance that helped keep imaginary violence in play. My own arsenal of guns in the 1950s included that treasured BB gun, several cap guns, a spring-loaded plastic six-shooter that shot plastic bullets, an air pump gun that shot Ping-Pong balls, a few ray guns (Flash Gordon serials on television), and even a wooden six-shooter that had been a Cub Scout woodworking project. My parents also let me play with a chrome cigarette lighter from the 1930s or 1940s that looked exactly like a derringer.

Baby boomers played with these guns in the house and outside, and usually they (we) played cowboys and Indians or we reenacted the World War II films we saw on television. Some Vietnam veterans—Tobias Wolff (1995) and Ron Kovic (1976), for example—recount in their memoirs playing “war” in the woods and fields near their suburban homes, memories of a childhood that gave them a romantic notion of war that turned out not to be quite so accurate. And Stephen King, another boomer, includes in his semi-autobiographical short story, “The Body” (1982), and in the film Stand By Me (1986) made from the story, the character of Teddy, one of the four boys who go on the adventure to see a real dead body. Teddy was the one obsessed with playing soldier as a way of celebrating and becoming his Marine father.

When I visited the Strong National Museum of Play in the spring of 2007, while this essay was still coming together in my mind, I noted the absence of toy guns as I meandered through the museum’s cases of old toys. It also seemed strange to me that the National Toy Hall of Fame at the museum did not include the Daisy BB gun. I asked museum CEO G. Rollie Adams about this absence, and while he shared with me his own recollections of a beloved Daisy and other PLAY  194 Fa l l 2 0 0 8 AmERICAN JOuRNAL OF •  toy guns from his youth, he said that the Daisy had been nominated several times but was considered too controversial to be chosen. In the museum’s experience, every time they try to display toy guns they get protests from parents and teachers. He and I were having this conversation shortly after a Virginia Tech University student went on a shooting rampage that now stands as the largest mass-murder by an individual in American history. The public conversation about this tragedy was in many ways a continuation of the one begun early in the 1990s, a conversation punctuated too often by school shootings and other acts of violence using guns.





So here is the question: What is it with boys and guns? And do adults have reason to worry about play with guns? There is a long history of toy guns in the United States, a history related to the mythological history of real guns in American history. Although girls and women have been known to handle guns—as target shooters, as hunters, and now as members of the U.S. military—my focus here is on boys and their gun play, for it is clear that guns hold a special attraction for boys. At the same time, it is also clear that we are living in a period of moral panic about the safety of children and, more to my point, about boys and violence.

The question—“what is it with boys and guns?”—brings together two socially constructed “social problems,” namely, the “problem” of masculine aggression and violence and the “problem” of easy access to guns in the United States. The “war on boys,” in fact, probably outpaces the ineffectual “war on guns” because the interests that see boys as dangerous, even “toxic,” are able to put institutional forces behind their rhetorical construction of that problem, whereas the people working against the easy access to guns exercise little real power in the society and government, especially against the large gun lobby of manufacturers and of users.

To understand boys and guns in this atmosphere, we need recourse to a complex mix of biology and culture. I begin this inquiry with the biological question because it is the biological, developmental base that makes it so difficult to separate boys and guns in American culture. But the biological question will quickly become a socio-biological question and a developmental-biological question. Biological behaviorists argue that the old choice between “nature” and “nurture” is a false dichotomy. They assert that biology and behavior perform a coevolutionary dance, a system of feedback and change with few or no simple, linear causations.

Even though I use the biology question as an entry into the system where 195 Gun Play biology and culture interact, the socio-historical, cultural questions regarding boys and gun play will help us see, first, what is under our control and, second, how we should think about boys’ gun play. At that point, I turn from the biological issues to the social and historical ones. I shall then dwell briefly on the history of toy guns and their marketing. But far more important is coming to an understanding of the meanings of gun play for boys. Gregory Bateson’s “Theory of Play and Fantasy” (1972/1955), with its notion of a “play frame,” clarifies the difference between the real use of guns and fantasy play with guns.

For against the intuition of vast numbers of parents and other adults, play with guns is not only not bad for boys but actually has some benefits. Let us begin with...

Where Biology meets Culture

We did not need science to see that in human history men are more violent than women. Eventually, evolutionary theory and folk theories concluded that boys and men are violent because life is a “struggle for existence” and because competition (warfare and its surrogates) favors the strong, aggressive men who survive to reproduce.

Historians have noted that the amount of violence in a society is driven largely by the proportion of men who are in the 18–27 age cohort (Courtwright 1996). That is why frontiers are so violent, argue historians—frontiers are populated largely by young, unattached men. Scientific research with animals and humans has yielded, in the last few decades, very strong evidence that the androgen hormone, testosterone, is a key element in male aggression and violence (Sapolsky 1997). People have been gelding animals and other people for many centuries in recognition of the role of the testes in making a mammal aggressive or docile, but we now know that it is the testosterone produced by the testes that produces the effect.

But, as behavioral biologist Robert Sapolsky points out, the truth is more complicated than the simple claim that “testosterone causes aggression.” The dichotomy between biological and environmental influences “is a sham,” warns Sapolsky. “No biology. No environment. Just the interaction between the two” (1997, 156). He continues: “Boys will be boys and certain things in nature are inevitable. Violence is more complex than a single hormone. This is endocrinology for the bleeding heart liberal—our behavioral biology is usually meaningless PLAY  196 Fa l l 2 0 0 8 AmERICAN JOuRNAL OF •  outside the context of the social factors and environment in which it occurs” (159).

So while biology has something to do with boys’ playing with weapons— from fists to clubs to knives to guns—we are going to have to look at culture, at the socialization of boys, for a better understanding of the ways the biology and the environment interact to create boys’ gun play.

The scholarly study of masculinity works along this hot border between male biology and the cultural arrangements meant to socialize the boy into a certain sort of man. Masculinity studies rely heavily upon feminist and other reinterpretations of psychoanalytic theory. Object relations theory, especially, informs the work of Nancy Chodorow (1978, 1994) and others (Frosch 1994) who give us the clearest understanding of the developmental forces behind certain performances of masculinity. The theory posits that the central developmental problem for a boy is the separation from his mother and the identification with her opposite gender, the masculine. The developmental sequence for girls goes somewhat smoother. A girl, too, needs to separate from her mother, but her mother is the “proper” identification from society’s point of view, so for a girl the identification with the female proves positive. A boy, on the other hand, must detach from his mother but also from the feminine gender, including the repression of the feminine aspect of the self, which leads some theorists to note that masculinity is based on a negative, on “not female,” and thus is always fragile and tentative (Frosch 1994).

This fundamental psychology runs counter to our everyday experiences of the performance of self-assured, confident, aggressive masculinity, but that is precisely the point. The developmental drama makes necessary the exaggerated, stylized performance of masculinity. Manhood must be proven on an ongoing basis; the necessity for the performance never ends—which explains the role of “tests” in the performance of masculinity. Men and boys are tested by other men and boys and they test themselves, for “proof” of manhood (no matter how tentative) emerges only with the successful response to a test (Raphael 1988;

Beneke 1997). The fundamental paradox of masculinity, therefore, is that its strong, sometimes swaggering, sometimes aggressive performance stems from its fragility.

Weapons become crucial props in the performance of a hard masculinity.

Weapons bring power to the performance. In thinking about the relationships between “violence and manhood in post-Vietnam America” (as his subtitle puts it), James William Gibson notes that the “new” war stories of the late 1970s and 197 Gun Play 1980s featured two elements we see in mythologies about masculinity—the test, and the exercise of self-control by the male seeker (1994, 78). Moreover, as in older mythologies, these heroes carry “magic weapons,” including Dirty Harry’s gun and Rambo’s knife (80–85). There is a ritual-like violence in these stories (See Ehrenreich 1997), too, and we might add that the sort of violence acceptable to Americans is a redemptive violence that rights a wrong (Jewett and Lawrence 1977; Lawrence and Jewett 2002). The notion of redemptive violence has religious origins, and we should note that for some premillennialist Christians in the United States it is a duty of parents to teach their boys to exercise dominion (even violent dominion) over the earth in anticipation of the Second Coming of Christ (Wilson 2001; Boyer 1992).

Gibson (1994) recounts quite clearly the role of guns in the “new war stories” read, watched, and enacted by young men growing up in a post-Vietnam America. He throws himself into cultural scenes where he encounters men with guns—paintball players, gatherings of soldiers of fortune, and a ranch teaching combat pistol shooting—and what he reports bolsters his argument that these men in the 1980s are using guns to fashion a new, tough masculinity through initiations, tests of manhood, and male bonding in the group.



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