My Son's First Handgun

(San Francisco Examiner and national syndicate) Copyright © George J. Leonard, 1993, 2000.

He's only 2 and a half years old, so I lost this battle early. It's not a real gun -- it shoots rubber bands -- but it's real in the deepest sense: The idea of the handgun has captivated Andrew.

He carries his gun everywhere, shoots it ("Bang! Bang!") at anything that frightens him -- sharks in the "Fishies' Book," the Bad Witch in "Wizard of Oz."He even sleeps with it. If we hide it, he improvises, sometimes with objects remarkably ungunlike: a small American flag, a plastic hot dog, a telephone pole from his Brio set.

Yet the stages by which the handgun concept took hold of him aren't the ones I'd read of in the gun control literature. There, the media takes the rap: Boy sees Violent TV Show, Boy Imitates Violent TV Show. Andrew's seen none of them.

His fascination with handguns made me realize that the things are deeply wonderful -- indeed, magical, to use the precise word. Violent TV shows merely pander to an understandable, natural love for these magical things.

I've seen that love begin at a certain developmental stage. Last summer, Andrew (age 1 year and 3 months), after watching his female cousins squirt Supersoakers in the backyard, demanded to squeeze the trigger on one, though he was so small I had to hold the gun for him to do so.

Ghastly moment for this baby boomer, who spent the Vietnam years, like our president, dodging the draft and singing peacenik songs:

Oh, you Masters of War!
You who build the dread guns!

Steadying the stupid pistol in my baby's tiny fist, I hear myself say, "Put your finger down here, that's the trigger. Pull it. Pull the trigger."

Oh, you Masters of War! But at that age -- to my guilty relief -- he showed little further interest in the gun, and that evening I was able to bury the Supersoakers deep in the garage.

During the past year, we dutifully screened what Andrew read and saw, even postponed Chaplin when Andrew was amazed that Charlie was "pushing" and "hitting," yet we seemed to think he was clever. Andrew is an only child who still solemnly tells other kids at the McDonald's slide, "No pushing." Kids with older brothers and sisters have learned how to fight like hell, but he hasn't. I'm delaying it as long as possible. The other night at McDonald's, a father came over and said his one-year-old had bumped his head, "and your son said, 'It's okay!' and kissed it to make it better."

That's the kid who is also packing a rod. My gentle child was turned on to handguns by that macho classic, Walt Disney's "The Wind in the Willows." Mr. Toad -- jailed for his fascination with motorcars -- escapes and commandeers a train.

Bobbies chase him on another train, firing a comic hail of bullets. (Bobbies with guns?) The irrepressible Toad shoots back at them with his finger, shouting (you guessed it) "Bang! Bing!"

Until "The Wind in the Willows," Andrew's favorite video tapes had been the ethereally gentle "Thomas the Tank Engine" series, narrated by the imperturbable Ringo Starr, and professional videotapes of model train layouts made by middle-aged white men in the Midwest who perhaps have gone bonkers during the long winters.

While they lecture to a shaky video camera on the Lionel F-3 with Magnatraction, pronouncing all their r's, do they picture Andrew sucking meditatively on his bottle, admiring their collections as he falls asleep? Or do they picture me paying 20 bucks for their tapes at the model train show?

When Andrew asked me to replay Toad's train ride five times in a row, I assumed he was enjoying the train. His eyes were as big as Mr. Toad's, when toad first spies "A mo-torcar!" Andrew was not yet 2 years old. A few months earlier, he had started talking about "monsters," by which he seemed to mean anyone who looked angry, or whoever showed their teeth in the "Fishies' Book."

"Go way, monster!" he'd scold. At Halloween, he was thrilled by the monsters who came to our doors. He began asking me to play "Daddy Monster." I would hold out my arms like Frankenstein and pretend to chase him, while he ran, shrieking with joy. But all he could do was shout at the monsters or run; Mr. Toad's train ride showed him an alternative. Bing them.

Soon he spotted guns being fired in a new Disneyland music tape. The Pirates of the Caribbean ("pirate monsters" wield bing-bings.) All the hint he needed.

The wooden rubber-band gun, bought at a crafts fair in Palo Alto from a woodworker who sold great Brio knock-offs, was dredged out of the toy chest. From then on, Andrew traveled armed. He had never seen a Stallone movie; never played Cowboys and Native American Persons; never played -- god forbid! -- War. Never had to.

We seriously underrate the handguns seductiveness, if we suggest people have to be conned into liking them by the evil media. You might as well claim we've been conned into liking chocolate by Hershey commercials. Admit it, guns are magical. One no longer must run from the Monster. One turns, takes back control of one's life and bings him.

Andrew knows nothing of how guns work, not even that they fire bullets. He only sees guns for what they most deeply are: magic wands with power over the biggest Monsters, yet magic somehow so condensed even the littlest underdog can carry it right in his hand.

Nobody has to con you into liking that. To deny how wonderful that is to fight heroin by pretending it doesn't feel good, is to teach conflict resolution by denying how satisfying it would be to paste that guy one in the kisser. Handguns are so magical we'll never get rid of the lethal damn things by lying to people that they're not. We'll only lose our credibility.

I confess the magic. And, confessing it, I can explain more precisely why their magic is bad magic, and is not for me. When people in the old fables find a fish that grants three wishes, a genie in a lamp, a magic wand, the ending is almost invariable tragic.

Those old storytellers were on to something. The last thing I want in this house, with that inquisitive little boy, is a real-life magic wand that -- like most magic wands in most fables -- has the power only to grant a wish, while lacking all power to take that wish back.

And in this case, what a wish.