Some of my routine tasks at the start of an otherwise regular workweek were going better than others on a recent morning. My drive to the office was quicker than usual, and once there, I scored the last cup in the coffeepot (yes, I brewed a fresh one). Fueled by java, I made great progress responding to a mountain of emails.
But I couldn’t, however, turn my mind away from a scene that had played out earlier that morning in my kitchen.
As I filled book bags with swimsuits and towels, my wife, who had spent the past 20 minutes brushing and combing our 4-year-old daughter’s hair, turned to Cary, one of our 6-year-old twin boys, and hesitantly agreed to something that was beyond earshot.
Not one to miss out on a granted privilege, Dean, his twin, wanted to know what their mother had just agreed to.
Turns out, a number of the children who attend their summer camp bring water guns and spray one another during their outside playtime, and our boys have felt left out. That’s because although my wife and I are not vocal anti-replica-gun parents, we have, consciously or not, avoided purchasing toy weapons for our children.
Recently, the children’s babysitter decided to reward them by purchasing each a toy water gun. I wasn’t thrilled when our bright-eyed trio ran up to me, clutching their new prizes, as I arrived home from work, but I bit my tongue and decided that it couldn’t hurt to let the children experience the joys of squirting one another with water on these hot and humid days in our back yard.
But the idea of our three children taking their toys out into the real world was too much for me to accept.
Upon hearing what my wife had agreed to, I snapped my disapproval and informed Cary that they could not take their toy guns to camp. He sheepishly protested while Dean pointed out that the toys were allowed. I glared icily at him and told each of them that I would throw the guns in the trash if either uttered another word. They all hung their heads while my wife looked at their crestfallen little faces.
I handed them their bags as we filed out of the house in silence on our way to camp. I hadn’t closed the front door before I began to regret how bullishly I’d shut down our children.
My reaction was a panicked one wrapped up in parental fears stemming from recent events where African Americans were wounded or killed after police officers deemed their possession of replica firearms too much of a threat.
On April 27 in East Baltimore, police shot a 14-year-old black boy after an officer mistook his BB gun for a semiautomatic pistol. He survived, but police killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, a Cleveland boy, in November 2014 after a 911 caller reported seeing him brandishing what appeared to be a toy gun. And 22-year-old John Crawford III, who picked up an air rifle from a shelf at a Dayton-area Walmart, was fatally shot by police after a shopper reported seeing a man with a gun.
These incidents and more floated through my head as my three innocent children struggled to make sense of my strong reaction to their desire to engage in a fun activity. But according to national data, I have reason to worry that their playing with toy guns could pose a grave risk to their health.
A 2014 analysis of federal data by ProPublica, found that “young black men are 21 times as likely as their white peers to be killed by police.”
And, of course, recent video footage of police killing Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in suburban Minneapolis have further driven home the fact that black males have to consider the role bias plays in how they are perceived by law enforcement, in particular, and society in general.
As I sat in my minivan and looked at my three children in the rear-view mirror, I immediately felt awful. I talked to them about my fears that someone could mistake their toy guns for the real thing. I tried to explain how actual guns have the capacity to do great harm, and I said that I never wanted anyone to interpret them playing with toy guns as a threat.
But mostly, I just apologized. I said I was sorry for raising my voice. I apologized for shutting down Dean, who in his attempt to explain how being unable to participate made him feel left out was exemplifying the expressive person that my wife and I have encouraged our children to be.
“But Dad,” said my oldest twin son, “it’s just a water gun. It can’t hurt anyone if it just shoots water.”
I studied the genuinely confused expression on my son’s face, turned around in my driver’s seat and said, “You know what? You’re absolutely right.”
My wife and I will send our children to camp with their water guns. We’ll try to push the statistics aside and allow them to experience the joys of blasting their friends with streams of water on a hot summer’s day. After all, it’s just a water gun.
Lester Davis is deputy chief of staff and communications director for the president of the Baltimore City Council.
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