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By Scott Jacobs

As any parent with a kindergartener knows, Christmas is a time to festoon the house with seasonal artwork from the fertile workshop of Ms. Shea’s class. Our tree has a paper plate ornament with my son’s picture on it and our living room walls are covered with cardboard cutouts you might––with a little imagination––take to be a crèche scene, a wreath and a finger-painted angel.

The living room is where Christmas unfolded this year with the usual mayhem of ripped wrappings and squealed delight. TV commercials on Nickelodeon came to life in Hot Wheels Ballistic Cannons, Lego helicopters and a Spiderman Mega Blaster Web Shooter. (Did I mention that my son Nick is a boy.) And next to the sled under the tree, there was still one more gift.

Nick ripped into the paper while his older brother (who purchased the gift) chuckled . . . and what to his wondering eyes should appear . . . but a Rayven N-Strike Elite semi-automatic Nerf gun with an 18-round clip of instant fire ammunition.

Nick’s interest in all the other toys came to a standstill. He danced around as his brother Justin assembled the parts, loaded the batteries (7 AA’s) and filled the cartridge with its glow-in-the-dark bullets. Before he could fully charge the semi-automatic trigger, Nick grabbed the gun from his hands and started spraying bullets in all directions. It took less than 30 seconds to unload the full clip.

When the adults in the room uncovered their eyes, the spongy Nerf bullets were all over the floor––except one. “Oh my God, he shot Jesus,” Justin said. And sure enough, stuck to the wall in the creche scene was a Nerf bullet.

It Could Have Been a Hail Fire

I suppose we should count ourselves lucky that the Rayven Elite is the low end of the high end of the Nerf gun line. For only a few dollars more, Nick might have gotten the more impressive Hail Fire––“the final word in today’s blaster capacity” with a rotating ammo rack capable of shooting 144 darts up to a range of 75 feet at speeds of 50 miles per hour.

The Hail Fire is the vanguard of a new wave of semi-automatic weapons Hasbro Toys’ Nerf division is releasing to stay at the forefront of the boys action toy market. In 2011, the industry leader sold $414 million worth of Nerf guns, Supersoakers and other related products.  (Only two other competitors reached the same $400 million plateau: Transformers and Beyblade.) The Hail Fire––and younger brother the Rayven––are designed to take the mayhem to a new level.

Earlier Nerf guns had a capacity of only 36 darts. Using a new ammo carousel that can hold eight bullet clips, the Hail Fire has a capacity of 144. Even more impressive, it has a new firing mechanism that squeezes the bullets out between two battery-powered wheels spinning at 18,000 rpm, spitting out all 144 darts in about two minutes. Although the Hail Fire was delayed in shipping this fall, the Rayven (which uses the same firing mechanism) was advertised heavily on TV––albeit to eight year olds and above––and was the hit of the Christmas toy season.

After the horror lifted from her face, my wife quickly grabbed the gun and buried the Rayven ammo clip at the bottom of the closet. Remarkably, my son is unfazed by its absence. He still goes around shooting the same gun (saying “pow pow” instead of firing darts) but the incident was a stark reminder––as if we needed it––of how pervasive guns are in our culture today.

A Family of Hunters

Yet another reminder came that same Christmas Day when the family drove out to see my wife’s relatives in Rockford. This is always a case of the city mice visiting the country mice and I settled into the living room chair only to find my in-laws deep in conversation about recent hunting trips for deer, turkey and quail. They seem to know the hunting seasons by dates (One brother-in-law just bought a crossbow so he can hunt during bow and arrow season) and schedule work and vacations around them.

My son is great admirer of his older cousin John who, at the age of 15, was taken on his first hunting trip this year––and bagged his first turkey. Before he was allowed to go, John had to complete a 4H-club sponsored gun safety course. From the age of 12, he has been walking the fields next to his father with no gun learning the dos and don’ts of the hunt. He wears the proper protective clothing, sheaths his weapon in transit and cleans it when he returns home. I’m sure he will be a responsible gun owner, and I respect the tradition. But my son’s only question to me wasn’t how can I learn that, but when can I go?

Back to The City

On the way back to Chicago, the car radio carried news of the last funerals after the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. There is emerging evidence about the imbalanced mental state of the young shooter, 20-year-old Adam Lanza. Although my son is only five, I fear there may be a little Adam Lanza in him (Don’t we all?) and recognize the time is coming when I will have to start drawing lines around his imagination.

When is playing with toy guns healthy role modeling and when it is over the top? What is the impact of television cop shows? Violent video games? Shoot–em-up iPhone apps?  Where do fantasy games and reality intersect? On the psychiatrist’s couch or at the gun store where semi-automatic weapons can be freely purchased? And who controls the guns or ammunition we can buy over the Internet?

As we near Chicago, I switch the dial to a local news station that reports the latest victim of gun violence is a 22-year-old man standing on a west side street corner who was shot four times from a passing car. He was nobody to speak of (probably a gang member) shot by a rival gang. It was just one of those things that happen every day in Chicago that the media has to report––for the 500th time. And it occurs to me we don’t have a gun culture in America. We have three of them: one grows in the fantasy life of boys, another is fostered in the father-son relationships of hunters, and yet another grows wild on city streets where cheap handguns proliferate. There is no one prescription that applies to them all, which is what makes gun control so problematic.

But as I look over my shoulder at my son sleeping in the back seat, I know its time to start finding answers. If we are what we pretend to be, I don’t want to live in a world where our pretend self can accidentally shoot Jesus.


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