Tag Archives: guns and kids

Tiny Guns For Tiny Toys

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Image of “BrickArms Bandit — Mr. Black” via BrickArms

Last week CNN reported on a study by interaction expert Christoph Bartneck demonstrating that LEGO figures are getting angrier. In his examination of LEGO miniatures, the New Zealand-based Bartneck found that the little people are sporting harsher facial expressions and more tiny guns than ever before.

I was entirely prepared to pitch in and write a short (but thoughtful) post implying that the increased aggressiveness of the LEGO figures might mirror some sort of increased glorification of aggressiveness in the culture. But then I checked out Bartneck’s blog, specifically this post in which he responds to last week’s media firestorm around his research.

Surely there is a relationship between the artifacts and ourselves. We shape the tools and toys and they shape us. But it is a complex relationship in which causalities are difficult to establish. Our little LEGO study was never intended to give an answer to this question and it certainly cannot even give a hint. We have only been able to scientifically establish that there are now proportionally less happy faces and more angry faces. But this is the main question that has been asked by the reporters. I feel sorry to have to disappoint the reporters and readers. I am not able to give you any scientific proof that LEGO is good or bad for your children.

There seems to be another narrative embedded here. One in which the tools we use for play as children end up profoundly shaping our lives as adults. It’s the same sort of question involved in asking whether your kid should be able to play violent video games or use an adult’s iPad. It’s a question I think I’ve also been circling with posts about Keystone’s children’s rifles the V&A’s exhibition on war toys.

Obviously our objects and built environments inform how we think. But do angry LEGOs make angry children?

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Where Gun Design Meets Crib Design

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John Browning Crib designed by Aaron Coston, images and information via Guns and Tactics

The above crib pays homage to the prodigious gun designer John Moses Browning (who created among other classics, the M1911 pistol that was standard-issue for the army for nearly 75 years and–interesting trivia–is the state gun of Utah). The front railing of the crib was designed to emulate the stocks of two 1895 Winchester lever-action rifles, the crib poles are made of steel rifle barrels, the headboard features Browning’s “buckmark” insignia and cut-outs of the Auto 5 shotgun. There are additional, subtler gun details that you can read about at Guns and Tactics but rest assured that  a great deal of thought, planning, and design ingenuity went into this piece.

The crib was created by gun-lover Aaron Coston when he learned that his wife was expecting their first child. He built it specifically to highlight the aesthetic and formal aspects of Browning’s designs:

…so many youth these days are indoctrinated with the idea that guns are bad. Guns are evil, and they’re only used to hurt people. I wanted my child to offer the contrasting truth as he grew up, that guns are beautiful, they aren’t evil, and the best time to start was right away.

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This crib points out an interesting aspect of our built environment and the way that we use objects to train our minds. Coston thinks that placing his child in the environment of the Browning Crib-–because it is a well-crafted, beautiful object—will encourage the child to appreciate the beauty of guns. So the crib is a teaching tool, a device that lets this dad tell a particular narrative about the place of firearms in society and culture. But it is also a way for Coston to affirm his own relationship with firearms and it probably serves as a reminder to him and his wife that guns are very much a part of their lives and the life they want to give their child.

I’m been writing a fair number of posts lately on guns and children and war toys. I think I’m so fascinated by this because objects created for children can reveal underlying social ideas about what makes a good life and a good human being. What are the objects that will train future citizens to be awesome? How should they think about those objects? As this crib demonstrates, there is a (not insignificant) portion of the US population that sees firearms as meaningful tools for citizenry.

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John Browning Crib designed by Aaron Coston, images and information via Guns and Tactics

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Where War Is Child’s Play: War Games at London’s Museum of Childhood

toy soldiersToy Soldier Set, Germany, c.1936, pieces by O & M Hausser and A. G. Lineol. Image via the V&A.

In line with this week’s informal theme of children, guns, and play, the Museum of Childhood in London opened War Games, a new exhibition that explores the material culture of war-themed toys and children’s ephemera.

According to The Guardian’s Mark Brown:

Co-curator Ieuan Hopkins admits they were not short of potential exhibits. “The first thing we did was go through the museum’s collections and the amount of material we had relating to war was incredible, it was quite a surprise. War has always been a part of children’s lives.”

Brown also mentions the exhibitions’ look at war propaganda aimed at children — how toys are so easily co-opted as political tools. It reminded me of a section in last summer’s Century of the Child exhibition at MoMA that featured a similar theme.

I think there’s something particularly discomfiting about the combination of childhood innocence and violent or racist propaganda. Children aren’t usually equipped with the critical thinking skills to know when an image or political message is manipulative. And it makes one question one’s own assumptions and beliefs. If they were stacked between “Clue” and “Monopoly”, would I have been an eager player of the “Get Those Japs” darts in War Games or the Nazi-themed “SAKAMPF” board game from Century of the Child?

Text on the War Games website acknowledges:

War play is controversial. It is actively discouraged by many parents and teachers, as it is thought to encourage aggression. But aggressive play, a type of active play, is not the same as real aggression, in which a child intends to harm.

Research questioning whether war play and aggression are linked is inconclusive. Fears that they are may come from personal beliefs and assumptions influenced by the pacifist and feminist movements of the last fifty years. War play can also bring benefits. It can help children to distinguish good from bad and right from wrong. And it can help them to explore their feelings and understanding of an often violent adult world.

Reminds me of yesterday’s post on prop oriented make-believe. There’s even a section of the exhibition displaying toy guns improvised out of sticks by the curator’s own son. Sound familiar?

War Games is at the Museum of Childhood in London from May 25 through March 9, 2014.

Thanks to @cat_rossi for the tip!

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Guns and Prop Oriented Make-Believe

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 Image via LA Times, Mike Bruce / Hammer Museum. These gun-shaped sticks were collected by the son of artist Rachel Whiteread as a substitute for the toy guns he was forbidden to own.

One thing that really struck me when I was conducting interviews for my MFA thesis was the high number of people who were drawn to firearms through play and fantasy. There was the gun curator who started as a Civil War reenactor, another who specialized in ornate weaponry after a childhood admiring medieval knights, and one whose love of firearms originated with his fascination for the ray gun of Buck Rogers. But it isn’t only curators who are interested in the fantasy component of weapons — the most popular objects on display at the National Firearms Museum were the light sabers for Star Wars.

The theorist Kendall Walton has written about the ways that we use objects and play and fantasy in order to understand abstract ideas and the purpose/potential of objects. He writes:

“We are constantly inventing new games of make-believe and communicating them to each other. This doesn’t mean that we actively participate in these games. Many of them are prop rather than content oriented; our interest being not in the make-believe itself, but in the props. Thinking of the props as props in potential games of make-believe is a device for understanding them.”

I think that to many people, guns (or the idea of guns) are merely props for thinking about relationships of power and our moral obligations to others and ourselves. So many children are drawn to toy guns or biting their breakfasts into a gun-shape for similar, if less sophisticated, reasons. What they’re really doing is thinking through different power relationships. They’re trying on ways of interacting with others and the world.

That’s my theory, anyway.

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Guns for Kids

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Images from the website of Keystone Sporting Arms, via MotherJones

Mother Jones recently ran a piece about Keystone Sporting Arms, the company that made and sold the child’s rifle used by a 5-year-old in the accidental shooting of his sister last week. The story is accompanied by images from the company’s “kid’s corner” photo gallery. Children, mostly girls, ranging in age from about 4 months to 14 years are shown posing with their rifles or proudly pointing to paper targets or dead animals.

But when I look at these pictures, I don’t see Future Gun Nuts of America but rather young people who are working to master a skill that takes a challenging amount of responsibility. These kids probably feel very good to be trusted with something potentially deadly– and satisfied when they use it properly. I know this probably a controversial stance but I see teaching an elementary schooler to correctly store, care for, and shoot a rifle as not too far from teaching a 4 year old how to chop carrots (not to mention this 11-month-old using a machete). Giving kids responsibility and challenging them in a safe environment with child-appropriate tools is probably a good thing.

That said, I don’t think it is appropriate to market firearms directly to children. But that is mostly because I don’t think products should be marketed to children at all. In 1980, the Canadian province of Quebec banned advertising aimed at youth under the age of 13 with a 1989 Supreme Court Ruling that “advertising directed at young children is per se manipulative. Such advertising aims to promote products by convincing those who will always believe.” Adult consumers have enough trouble parsing the constant bombardment of ads. I don’t think that most children are adept at separating marketing fiction from fact.

That said, The New York Times‘ coverage of the guns-marketed-to-youth trend is a undeniably chilling. Dr. Jess P. Shatkin, the director of undergraduate studies in child and adolescent mental health at New York University, is quoted in the NYT story saying that

young people are naturally impulsive and that their brains “are engineered to take risks,” making them ill suited for handling guns. “There are lots of ways to teach responsibility to a kid,” Dr. Shatkin said. “You don’t need a gun to do it.”

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