Whether kids pretended to be cowboys or war heroes or space adventurers, the toy gun was a crucial accessory. And it has been that way for more than a century. (Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

Two cops rush to the scene. “This sounds like a gun battle — over there!” one calls to his partner.

They see the suspects: two little boys, wielding rifles.

The police officers do not shoot.

Rather, they examine the boys’ weapons and break into big smiles: “Hey, is it real?” one officer asks.

“Looks like real,” his partner marvels.

“And it sounds like real,” the first officer confirms.

“Right — every shot!” says the announcer, because this is on television.

It’s an ad, from 1967, for the Sound-O-Power M-16 military rifle, a big hit for Marx Toys at Christmas that year, $5.99, batteries not included.

A Marx Sound-O-Power will run you about $225 now, if you can find one on the collectors’ market. Marx, once a titan of the American toy industry, is long dead.

Today, no U.S. toy company would dare advertise its guns as “just like real,” but from the 1940s to the 1980s, toymakers competed to market the most realistic looking, sounding and feeling weapons.

Today, toy guns are in critical condition, fading fast — or at least that’s the view from, say, a Toys R Us in Fairfax County, where a simple “Um, do you have any toy guns?” transforms a friendly clerk’s face into one that looks poised to utter the word that will turn this little reporting venture into a pre-holiday nightmare: “Security!”

At the next Toys R Us, your intrepid reporter wises up and conducts his recon mission solo. Ah, here we go: “Covert Ops,” a line of military tech toys — binoculars, walkie-talkies, night-vision goggles — and not one weapon. And here’s G.I. Joe himself: plastic soldiers, armed with swords — swords! — but nothing that shoots.

Only in the very back of the store, in a section devoted to what the toy industry euphemistically calls “blasters,” do we find a selection of “Made in China” molded-plastic devices that shoot wan little foam darts that zip through the air with all the zest of overcooked ziti. (In all their iridescent green glory, blasters, led by Hasbro’s Nerf line, are a $500 million market.)

Even online, Toys R Us has only one product that answers to a search for “guns,” the Huntsman Pillager 12-shot . . . what? The very names are a touchy topic in this business. This foam-dart shooter dares not be called a “gun”; it’s not even a “blaster.” It’s just an “X-12 Multi-Shot,” period. As if “Multi-Shot” were itself a noun. And it’s available only online, not in stores.

Things have changed in the toy gun world. They’ve changed because ever since the Vietnam War and the carnage and fires that swept through American cities and triggered white flight to the suburbs, attitudes about parenting and children and play have shifted markedly. In parts of America now, especially in the hyper-educated urban and suburban Zip codes, the idea of buying the kid a toy gun for Christmas is about as attractive as buying him a syringe and a heroin starter kit.

And they’ve changed because toy guns bring both pleasure and the ultimate pain, as Americans learned yet again last month, when Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice because the boy was carrying a BB gun that looked like a real firearm.

The list of incidents in which police have shot kids who turned out to be wielding toys is soberingly long. Every few years, such shootings spark new agitation against toy weapons. Tamir Rice’s death renewed the focus on a toy that is designed to delight but ends up now and then confronting the nation with unsettling questions about power, commerce and the modern realities of childhood.

Guns have been made for children for more than 150 years, as toys and as training tools for boys who would follow their fathers into hunting. The original Daisy air rifle, first built in 1888, was marketed door-to-door to farm families, says Joe Murfin, vice president of marketing for Daisy Outdoor Products in Rogers, Ark., which is also home to the Rogers Daisy Airgun Museum.

Early toy guns were finely crafted, lovingly designed, cast-iron specimens, often made by the same companies that made the firearms they were modeled after. Realism was the goal, whether the manufacturer was trying to copy the cowboys’ favorite revolver or a World War II Tommy gun.

Nothing has changed in that regard: Kids, and some shopkeepers, like to remove the orange tips that federal law has required on the barrel end of toy guns — but not on BB guns — since 1989 “because, honestly, the mystique is in the realism,” says Gary Cross, a historian at Penn State who has written a book on toys. Some manufacturers fought the orange-tip requirement, designed as a signal to police that a gun is just a toy, “because it delegitimized the appeal of their product,” he says.

Toy gun sales soared after each world war. When gangsters became a staple of Hollywood films in the ’30s, gangster guns became popular toys. Cap guns blew through sales records in the ’40s, thanks in part to the Lone Ranger movie serial. When science-fiction became a staple at the moviehouse and on early TV, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon ray-guns nudged aside Tommy guns.

But even in the golden years of the toy gun industry, there were signs of social unease. In the ’30s, mothers’ movements tossed toy guns onto bonfires to protest the notion of making toys like the weapons gangsters used against police.

“This was a classic moral panic,” Cross says. “The idea was that those kids would grow up to be gangsters.”

New York City has banned black, blue and silver toy guns since 1955. In recent years, towns and cities in several states have passed outright bans, or offered to buy toys back from the citizenry. New York’s attorney general last week sent cease-and-desist letters to Amazon, Wal-Mart, Sears and other retailers who sell toy guns lacking an orange stripe along the gun’s barrel, which New York law requires. (California will adopt that standard in 2016.)

The orange tip has a poor track record. A federally funded experiment in 1989 confronted police officers from the Montgomery, Fairfax and Prince William county departments with actors holding toy guns with the orange plug; 96 percent of officers fired at the toy guns. The orange tip “completely failed to enable the test subjects to identify the weapon as a toy,” the study concluded.

Parental and political pressure have pushed BB guns out of the toy store and into the back of sporting-goods outlets. “We’re not selling toys,” Murfin says. “We’re selling guns.”

Starting in the 1970s, “toy guns lost their popularity, and so did Westerns,” Murfin says. “America changed. People moved to the suburbs, and they needed to shoot indoors and in clubs instead of out in the country.”

Major retailers, feeling the heat from parents, backed away from the products. But although adults do buy BB guns for competition shooting and pest control, Daisy and its competitors say the youth market remains crucial. When Murfin wrote the company history a couple of years ago, he touted his book like this: “Celebrating 125 years as the company that teaches America to shoot.”

Frank Matthews III got his first two cap pistols when he was 6 years old. Fifty-two years later, he has no doubt: “I can still twirl them things,” he says.

Growing up in Huntsville, Ala., Matthews loved to watch “Combat,” the 1960s TV series about a World War II infantry squad. He studied the guns used on the show, and when he was 14, Matthews got a BB gun, which he used to shoot at passersby in front of the Northwoods housing project.

“I thought it was funny,” he says.

Later, inspired by the movie “Shaft,” “I’d go out and my cousins would drive me around, and I robbed places,” Matthews recalls.

His father was shot in the back and killed, but that did nothing to dim Matthews’s fascination with guns. “The thing that killed my father is what I fell in love with,” he says.

Matthews would spend five years in prison in the 1980s on robbery convictions. Released early in recognition of his work against gangs in the penitentiary, he has continued that effort in the decades since.

This month, in response to the Cleveland shooting, Matthews is leading toy gun smash-ups and buybacks at state capitols across the South, and he’s organizing a boycott of stores that sell BB guns.

“I’d be a fool to think we’re going to get rid of toy guns in this violent society,” he says, “but they serve no purpose. I don’t want any kid to have that cold, hard feeling I had when I actually drew a gun on somebody.”

Matthews is under no illusion that any amount of parental resolve will cure boys of their passion for guns. “Kids will still shoot,” he says. “This is no panacea. But parents have to be a trumpet to start the process of eliminating them. We’re up against the NRA, the manufacturers, parents who say it’s nothing bad. We’re up against the reality in the projects today, where it’s not cap pistols anymore — it’s 12-year-olds with the real thing.”

Police in Illinois last week confiscated a lime-green and cherry-red Super Soaker and a similarly colored toy pistol, both of which had been converted into working firearms.

Over the years, stories like that have caused many toy gun defenders to choose silence during periodic waves of anti-toy gun political agitation. The NRA did not respond to a request for comment on efforts to tighten regulations on toy guns; the group has often denounced efforts to “demonize anything remotely related to firearms.”

The toy industry is so freaked out by the debate that even its media spokesman won’t answer questions. Instead, the Toy Industry Association relies on a prepared statement — first issued after the anti-toy gun fervor that followed the Newtown elementary school massacre two years ago — arguing that, “Quite often, military and other role-play items may help kids work through or cope with what is happening in the world around them through play rather than through outwardly aggressive behavior. They keep kids moving, allow them to role-play (police officers, superheroes, etc.), encourage teamwork and/or strategic thinking, empower both genders, allow them to work through their emotions, and help them to forge their own identities and develop moral values.”

Toy and BB gun makers certainly have to be careful about their language. BB gun boxes carry multiple warnings, from “This Is Not A Toy” to “Warning: Do not brandish or display this airsoft gun in public. It may confuse people and may be a crime. Police and others may think it is a firearm. Do not change the coloration and markings to make it look more like a firearm.”

That warning appears on products such as the Beretta 300-round full-automatic airgun, which mimics the company’s firearms quite effectively, except for the federally mandated orange plastic tip at the end of the barrel. The same words appear on the box of a Smith & Wesson spring-operated Elite BB gun, though in much smaller lettering than this pronouncement: “Ready to Play!”

The awkward twists of language surrounding toy guns stem from a shift in how adults think about play, toy gun makers say. A BB gun is “a relationship activity, not a babysitter like a video game,” Murfin says. “This is a multi-generational activity. It’s a handing down of tradition from parent to child.”

It seems impossible now, but not that long ago, many schoolteachers awarded their outstanding students a shiny new cap gun. Jim Schleyer sees them come up on the market quite often, engraved with “Student of the Month.”

Schleyer, one of the nation’s foremost collectors of toy guns, is 75, and he’s bought and sold thousands of them, which brings him into contact with people such as the Maine teacher whose impressive stash of 75 water pistols was acquired mainly through confiscation from obstreperous boys.

“All of us kids played with toy guns and didn’t become criminals,” says Schleyer, who lives in Burke, “and now it’s all of a sudden taboo even to point your finger like a gun. It’s just a shame to see where it’s gone.”

As a kid on Long Island, he and his buddies took their trusty sidearms out on safari or onto the battlefield or into the alleys in search of a notorious gangster, all without straying off their block. “You never got killed, you got winged,” he recalls. They’d take their guns to the movies and shoot at the screen along with Roy Rogers and Gene Autry.

“I don’t remember anyone’s eyes being shot out,” he says. (Jean Shepherd — the master storyteller whose “A Christmas Story” features Daisy’s “official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle” — called that immortal phrase about the eyes “the classic mother BB gun block.”)

As Schleyer got older, his fantasy play morphed into admiration for the workmanship in the guns, the inlaid ivory, the fine metalwork, the crisp sounds they produced. “Sometimes they were more complicated than the real thing,” he says.

In more recent years, he’s been invited to display some of his prized possessions at local libraries, only to have parents complain “that I was encouraging kids to shoot and kill,” he says.

He’s saddened by the antipathy toward toy guns, but he understands the basis for the fear: “If you walk out of the house now with one of those AK-46s they’re making, you’d be shot for sure — they’re that real-looking. I don’t know how a policeman could tell the difference.”

Schleyer has 10 grandchildren, some of whom play with his toy guns, but mostly they’re more drawn to video games. (At Toys R Us stores where toy guns can be hard to find, row upon row of shooter video games are on offer: “Call of Duty,” “Grand Theft Auto,” “Killzone.”)

“I worry about the influence of those games,” Schleyer says. “We never saw killing when we were growing up. Roy Rogers never killed anyone, and the good guys always won.”

In Hong Kong, at Asia’s biggest toy fair, there are hundreds of new toy gun products on display, and their makers unabashedly sell the guns as hyper-real.

“It’s like a shooting gallery in there,” says Richard Gottlieb of Global Toy Experts, an industry consultancy. “People are dressed as soldiers, carrying guns that look like the real thing.”

Same scene at Nuremberg, Europe’s largest toy show, where Gottlieb saw “a gorgeous brass cannon-shot toy automatic weapon, and I thought, ‘Whoa, that would never go in the United States.’ ”

At the New York Toy Fair, “good luck finding toy guns,” he says. “The lower the use of guns in a society, the more likely they are to be seen as okay as a toy.”

Cause and effect?

In the stacks of academic studies on the effects of toy guns, there are two basic schools of thought: Toy guns are bad, and toy guns are actually not so bad, and may even be beneficial.

For decades, Benjamin Spock, whose classic “Baby and Child Care” was a bible of child-raising to generations of American parents, instructed mothers not to worry if Junior engaged in “pistol play.” Noting that by age 6 a boy will stop pretend-shooting at his parents because “his own conscience has . . . turned stricter,” Spock argued that “playing at war is a natural step in the disciplining of the aggression of young boys.”

But in 1968, he revised his book after concluding that casual TV violence begets increased cruelty in both children and adults. “Parents should firmly stop children’s war play or any other kind of play that degenerates into deliberate cruelty or meanness,” he wrote. But Spock said he wouldn’t be hard-core about it: “If his uncle gave him a pistol . . . I myself wouldn’t have the nerve to take it away.”

There is no consensus among social scientists about what toy guns do to or for kids. “Children need to understand the difference between real and fantasy violence,” writes American studies professor Jay Mechling in the American Journal of Play, and they can absorb that distinction “only if they have experiences with fantasy violence.”

The basic sales pitch for toy guns — an appeal aimed especially at fathers who have their own rich memories of play-shooting — has remained unchanged for a century: “Toy guns were a rite of passage for boys to become men,” says Cross, the Penn State historian. “For many years, that was something admirable. But these days, it suggests a quality of violence or aggression that people are very uncomfortable with, especially as we have idolized the idea that children are cute and innocent.”

Toy guns still sell by the millions, although Murfin says Daisy’s sales “aren’t what they once were” in urban and suburban America. In rural areas, he says, “there’s still good growth.”

Toy and BB gun sales are “a red-state phenomenon now,” says Cross, who sees a simultaneous decline in hunting culture and in “these old concepts of masculinity.”

Gottlieb, the toy consultant, looks at the persistence of toy guns’ popularity around the globe and concludes that “all kids have basic needs to act out their fears of adulthood. For girls, it’s sexuality and social interaction. For boys, it’s death and dying. These are essential play patterns. They’re going to be acted out somewhere because the thought of going to war and getting killed is scary. A lot of this has moved to first-person shooter video games because toy guns have become taboo and play has moved indoors. But as a culture, we still want to shoot.”