Does Zero Tolerance Make Sense for Toy Guns?

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Jonathan Turley, professor of public interest law at George Washington University, talks about his op-ed that appeared in Saturday's Washington Post, where he questions why parents shun children with toy guns.

NEAL CONAN, host:

Now it's time for the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. Our correspondent this week encountered a psychodrama at the local playground. He took his boys - one 4, the other 6. Of course, the younger one wanted to bring one of his favorite toys: a Buzz Lightyear plastic ray gun. As the kids played, one of the other parents started to glare and then complained for everyone to hear that her son would not be allowed to play anymore if that boy was going to be allowed to play with guns.

So what do you do? In an op-ed in the Washington Post over the weekend, Jonathan Turley wrote that while he'd prefer that his kids play peace-maker, they occasionally play shoot 'em up or sword-fight instead, and so what? Maybe, he argues, we've taken the whole zero-tolerance-on-toy-guns movement a little too far.

If after Columbine there are zero-tolerance rules for any kinds of weapons in school, what do you do when 7-year-olds play war in the playground? If plastic AK-47s are bad, what do you do when a kid makes a make-believe machine gun from a dead branch?

Our phone number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. Jonathan Turley is a professor of public interest law at George Washington University here in Washington, D.C., and he's been kind enough to join us today here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for coming in.

Professor JONATHAN TURLEY (Public Interest Law, George Washington University): It's a great pleasure.

CONAN: And I gather this episode in the playground was not unique?

Prof. TURLEY: No. Actually, the first time I experienced the shunning, as you can call it, was at Wheel Day, which is this wonderful parade where all the children bring their wheeled things in, and they make them into various fantasy things. And my kids and I worked hard on building a real covered wagon from an Internet picture with canvas and water barrels.

And yes, there were two play guns inside the wagon. And while we were celebrating - we won the Wheel Day competition, which was a great moment in my life. But a mother pulled her child out of the competition because there were guns in that wagon, and the kid was just screaming as hard as he could. He didn't want to go.

I was really embarrassed, but I was also pretty angry that she did not seem to differentiate. It's not like my kids were trying to, you know, reenact a raid on a Cherokee village. They were just riding in a covered wagon. And so it got me thinking about this, and I started looking up literature because my wife and I debated this for many years as to should we get rid of all the swords and guns, and is there something hard-wired, particularly in boys, that just makes them want to do this type of play?

CONAN: And your conclusions were?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. TURLEY: We ended resolving it was nature, not nurture. And I talked to a lot of my neighbors, and they all had the same experience that we did. You know, we went years without this, and we lost all of our celery and carrots to sword games, and it just was an endless struggle. And so we did allow them to have these toys, and we have not seen any Hannibal Lecter behavior. They actually tend to play rather nicely with them.

CONAN: You point out that even though they're playing war, a lot of the games they come up with are we've got to rescue our guys, or, you know, there's some sort of life-affirming aspect to this.

Prof. TURLEY: Yeah, I was really struck. We went to an Army-themed birthday, and I was struck how all of the little boys were testing out values of sacrifice and courage with their friends in defending the wounded and carrying them off the field and trying to give meaning to values at their extreme, and I think that's how little boys and little girls often think. They work on those extreme notions of values that they have.

CONAN: We're talking with Jonathan Turley, professor of public interest law at George Washington University. His op-ed was published in the Washington Post over the weekend. If you'd like to read it, there's a link to it at our page, npr.org/talk, and you can also find out how to download all of our Opinion Page segments as podcasts. But let me just say that you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And this - I think after Columbine, we've all come to accept that weapons and anything that looks like a weapon is just not acceptable at school.

Prof. TURLEY: We have. In fact, all of us support that, even, you know, water pistols. We don't want them going to school. They look often too real, and they also, frankly, are disruptive. But what I found in my research was really horrific examples of excessive responses by school officials, kids being expelled for the smallest infraction.

CONAN: Zero tolerance is zero tolerance.

Prof. TURLEY: Yeah, but we have kids that were thrown out of school because they picked up a chicken finger and went pow-pow at a friend, and they were yanked into the principal's office and the police were called. I mean, as an educator, I don't know what you're teaching children with that, but it doesn't seem to have any real purpose except a very draconian response.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners in on the conversation. We'd like to hear from parents. 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org, and we'll start with Joanne. Joanne's calling us from Phoenix.

JOANNE (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

JOANNE: This is such a great subject. I have a girl, and I have a boy. And the girl never even made one attempt to shoot anything. My son pointed straws, popsicle sticks, tree limbs, everything, and I am fine with it. I have no problem with - he's now 15, but - and he has an interest in guns. He could tell a police officer exactly what gun, caliber, bullet. And he is fascinated with guns, and it's okay with me. He's a healthy kid. He gets good grades in school, and he's a pretty together young man.

CONAN: But it sounds…

JOANNE: I don't have a problem with it.

CONAN: It sounds, though, as if you at one point tried to keep guns away, and then he turned anything he found into a gun.

JOANNE: This was - we're talking about when he was 2 and 3, and I agree with Mr. Turley. It is definitely in their nature.

CONAN: Okay, Joanne, thanks very much. And we assume that he'll stick to those good rules when he goes on to college.

JOANNE: Let's hope so. Thank you for taking the call.

CONAN: Sure, appreciate it.

JOANNE: Uh-huh. Bye-bye.

CONAN: And this - you know, is it nature, nurture or are we socialized - young boys - socialized into this idea that they should, you know, fight with swords and automatic weapons?

Prof. TURLEY: Well, you know, I interviewed a lot of experts both locally and nationally, and even those that were most anti-gun actually did not support the zero-tolerance approach and felt that it actually could be harmful.

The real interesting stories actually came from parents. I mean, in my neighborhood, we've got dozens of kids below 10, and all the parents told us I've got three boys and a girl, and they just seem wired differently. Those boys gravitated toward this type of play. And I have other people talk about their kids ripping the heads off Barbies and turning them into guns. And it's not that these are sadistic little kids heading to their personal My Lai incident, they're just boys trying to experience those emotions and fantasies.

CONAN: Let's talk with Dillon(ph), Dillon with us from Hillsboro in Oregon.

DILLON (Caller): Hey, Neal.

CONAN: Hi.

DILLON: Yeah, you know, I definitely think it's a nature thing. I mean, I grew up, you know, playing war in the Cold War kind of era in the '80s, you know, running around in the woods pretending the Russians were attacking and all that stuff, and I'm a total peacenik now. I attend peace rallies, and I even actually own a few guns, you know, for sport shooting and things.

CONAN: Well, there's not necessarily a contradiction there.

DILLON: Yeah, and I have an 8-year-old son, and it's the same thing. I mean, he likes to play shoot 'em up, but he's also a sweet, loving child. And, you know, and then we have, you know, our kids are bombarded with - I mean, this country's been at war every decade for the - you know, as long as I've been alive. And, you know, I think there's a lot more to it than what the parents are doing or what the schools are doing. You know, it's just part of our culture.

CONAN: Yeah, that's another aspect of it. Jonathan Turley, you sure - none of us can escape that.

Prof. TURLEY: No, that's right. We're all saturated with it. But the fact that these boys want to play these games - they're treated as just so threatening. I mean, look. Frankly, my kids would not have wanted the Dalai Lama float for Wheel Day. I mean, they wanted to have the guns in the wagon.

It wasn't just historical accuracy. But it - there's a sense among zero-tolerance parents that there's this dark, dormant gene in boys that if you wake them up, you really end up sort of invading Poland a few decades later. And it really is just not the case.

There are no studies to support any impact, either on zero tolerance or gun-tolerant play. Some studies show that the level of aggression may go up in the presence of these toys, but that's a parental thing. We've very, very careful on rough play. If they engage in rough play, they lose all their swords and guns for a weekend, and it has a big impact.

CONAN: Okay. Dillon, thanks very much for the call.

DILLON: All right, thank you.

CONAN: And Jonathan Turley, thanks very much for your time today and fighting your way through traffic to get here. We appreciate that, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. TURLEY: Thank you.

CONAN: Jonathan Turley is a professor of public interest law at George Washington University. You can read his op-ed by going to our Web site. There's a link at npr.org/talk. And again, you can find out information about our Opinion Page podcasts: npr.org/talk. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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