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Toy Guns: Don’t Shoot the Messenger

As a child, there were toy guns in my house. I never thought twice about them. I played with plenty of water guns in the summer. Frequently, I joined my little brother in Nerf gun battles in the winter after his Christmas bounty arrived. There were a few years when he was really into paintball. All of his friends had equipment. They formed teams and battled in the backyard. I held my own against them too! We were usually dressed in our Dad’s old Army greens. Sometimes we chose all black so that we weren’t an easy target. I thought nothing about our safety outside of the game itself. At worst, we maintained small, round bruises from close-range shots.

Not long ago, my parents cleaned out their garage to sell our childhood home. I came across my brother’s old paintball equipment. I tried to imagine if someday my son and his friends might run through our East Nashville neighborhood playing with the same guns my brother and I once held so dear.  

If my son was white? I probably would have taken that paintball gun home.

Years ago, when I first joined my Nashville neighborhood Facebook group, the number of white neighbors posting about “a suspicious black man walking in the alley” exhausted me. A call was usually made to the non-emergency number. These posts literally warned about Black Men Walking . . . in their own neighborhood.

But it was naive to think this was something new or unique to my zip code. On one of my last visits to my childhood home, my mother pointed out that their black neighbor always wore his medical scrubs while out for his nightly walk in their overwhelmingly white neighborhood. Had I really always assumed that he just didn’t have time to change his clothes after work?

Twitter didn’t create the social construct of #WalkingWhileBlack or #DrivingWhileBlack. These online hashtags were created to expose the social injustices that are a daily reality for black people.

Today, when I hold a toy gun? It carries the weight of Tamir Rice, a 12 year old boy killed for playing with a realistic-looking toy gun in a public park and John Crawford III, a 22 year old man killed while talking on the phone and walking through a Walmart, also holding a toy BB gun (not yet purchased) and Philando Castile, a 32 year old man killed after being pulled over and voluntarily disclosing to the officer that he had a firearm (and a license to carry it).

It has since been reported that Castile was pulled over 49 times in 13 years—often for minor infractions. I don’t know if Castile was a good driver or a bad driver. I do feel confident in saying that being pulled over 49 times is a lot. In fact, it was enough to make me look up statistics in his city.

Just 7 percent of residents are black in St. Anthony and neighboring Lauderdale and Falcon Heights, according to census data. However, the St. Anthony police data shows that nearly half of all arrests made by St. Anthony officers were of African-Americans in 2016.

Given the recent report from Gideon’s Army, Driving While Black, it seems that Nashville’s police force is not exempt from similar accusations of discrimination. So long as this type of racial profiling and excessive force exists, you will not find me buying toy guns. And yet, my son is drawn to them. I’ve seen him pick up a stick and pretend to shoot with it. If your kid has a toy gun, my kid will probably have it in his hands within a matter of minutes. When this happens, I sternly take it away and state in my most serious tone that we.don’t.play.with.guns. I don’t want my son to feel comfortable holding a gun at five years old. I want it to feel dangerous to him. Because right now, it is.  

“Firearm-related deaths are the third leading cause of death overall among U.S. children aged 1 to 17 years.” –  Katherine Fowler of Center for Disease Control’s Division of Violence Prevention

But I’m also not sure at what age a gun is safe, since my son will always be black.  

Terence Crutcher would probably have something to say about that—if he were alive today. He is the most recent unarmed black victim of a highly publicized police shooting. Although the white officer who killed him asserts that “race had no factor” in the shooting. Another quote from the same officer, Betty Shelby:

If I waited to find out if he had a gun or not, I could very well be dead. There’s something that we always say: “I’d rather be tried by 12 than carried by six.”

It’s not a far stretch to see why Officer Shelby would feel comfortable in that mindset. Rarely does being tried by 12 result in anything other than an acquittal. Officer Betty Shelby was found not guilty of manslaughter. Although the jurors unanimously agreed that Shelby should never be a patrol officer again.

I can’t justify allowing my son to be casual about guns at any age. Because I can’t predict when my son’s black body might be considered a threat—in and of itself. All through high school and into college, my brother walked our neighborhood fully dressed for combat without incident. Trayvon Martin was an unarmed 17 year old carrying Skittles and wearing a hoodie when he was considered to be a mortal threat.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics published a report in 1990 called Toy Guns: Involvement in Crime and Encounters With The Police. This report was twelve years before Tamir Rice was born. And twenty-four years before he died. According to the study, it was the behavior of the person holding the toy gun that was the “triggering element” in the officer’s decision to shoot.

“If they are told there’s a person with a gun acting in a threatening manner, that’s what they respond to,” said David L. Carter, a professor at Michigan State University who spoke to officers in 27 law enforcement agencies.

Tamir Rice was killed within 2 seconds of Officer Loehmann’s arrival. Within that timespan, the officer perceived that the toy was a real firearm being pointed and made the professional decision to shoot. In this case, there were no charges filed against Loehmann. Instead, like in most police shootings, the public is asked to trust the judgement of the officer—despite the fatal consequence. While being investigated for Rice’s death, it was discovered that Loehmann had lied on his 2013 employment application, withholding information about the full circumstances of how his time at a previous department ended. Loehmann should never have been hired in the first place.

“Loehmann was allowed to resign from the Independence department after six months following a series of incidents where supervisors determined he was unfit to be a police officer.

“The disciplinary letter cites a letter in Loehmann’s personnel file from Independence that says he was emotionally immature and had ‘an inability to emotionally function.’ The letter also cites an emotional breakdown Loehmann had on the gun range in Independence.”

The city of Cleveland later settled a civil lawsuit with the Rice family. Afterward, Cleveland’s police union suggested that the victim’s family use a portion of the settlement to “educate the youth of Cleveland in the dangers associated with the mishandling of both real and facsimile firearms.” It’s called victim blaming when the victim of a crime, an accident, or any type of abusive maltreatment is held as wholly or partially responsible for the wrongful conduct committed against them. Or in this case, an example of local law enforcement going on record to hold this family and community accountable for their own deaths.

I too got the message—loud and clear.

My son starts Kindergarten this year. He has already experienced two school lockouts due to external threats in the vicinity of his school. One of which resulted in a 16 year old charged with four counts of attempted homicide at an apartment complex across the street. The lockout was necessary while police searched for the shooter (whose family did not know that the teen was in possession of a gun). According to TNCrimeOnline, in 2016, Nashville’s Davidson County was responsible for 13% of Tennessee Juvenile arrests with a firearm.

“The number of Nashville shootings causing injury or death continues to skyrocket in 2017 compared to last year.” –  WKRN Nashville News 2

I pray that both my children make it through their entire education without ever experiencing a shooter-related lockdown. This is where we are today. Schools now have emergency response and crisis management plans. And with that comes zero tolerance policies.  A quick google search will turn up multiple articles of elementary school students across the country suspended and expelled over toy guns. And one about a judge who upholds the suspension of student who chewed a pop tart into the shape of a gun.

If your child, like mine, attends a Metro Nashville Public School, then you already have a copy of the Parent-Student Handbook. It includes disciplinary response (up to and including out of school suspension) for the following Type 3 Behavior: Possessing a non-lethal firearm, weapon replica, stun gun, BB gun, air gun, air soft gun, pellet gun, cap gun, or toy gun.  

So which is it? Is a gun a toy? A right? Or a threat?

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Does it change based on environment? Age? Or just skin color?

As an adult, I can’t quite navigate the landscape of this country’s definition of equal rights. It’s my responsibility to protect my son. I’m just trying to be consistent in a world that most certainly is not. Most of my own dear friends and family do allow guns as toys in their homes. At the end of the day, we all have to be comfortable with our own parenting choices.

Some of us just have the privilege of being more comfortable than others.

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