woody_zimmerman_118_2007In recent weeks school officials across the country have rolled up their sleeves and gone after the nation's gun-problem with stern resolve. Nearly every day brings a new report on weapons seizures and students severely disciplined (although no actual hangings or floggings have yet been reported). Just today the Washington Examiner reported a weapons bust by Alexandria Police at the Douglas MacArthur Elementary School. (Early indications suggest that the perp will serve hard time for this one.)

The crackdown has been – are you ready for this? – on toy guns, on gun-like shapes, and even on fingers cocked and pointed to simulate guns. One student was suspended for fashioning leggo blocks into a pistol-shape, and another was disciplined when he aimed his "finger-gun" at a classmate while making an explosive sound with his mouth. (The report did not indicate whether his shot struck, went wild, or hit someone else besides the intended victim. Fortunately, the perpetrator was disarmed and apprehended before he could reload his finger for a second shot.)

The criminal arrested and charged with "brandishing a weapon" in Alexandria, VA, was actually a 10-year-old boy who had brought a toy gun into the school in his backpack. He had not pointed it at anyone, but school staff could not tell if it was a toy. Police arrested the boy at the school and took him to a juvenile detention center. Administration officials are considering expulsion. (No, I am not making this up!)

Most school administrators have been unwilling to discuss these incidents with reporters or other outside parties, citing school policy which prohibits discussion of disciplinary cases outside the school system. But some parents of disciplined students have gone public to the media with details. They complain that schools are spending time and resources on nonsensical "enforcement" which will: (a) siphon off effort that might have been spent guarding against real guns and real threats; and (b) lead to a false sense of security by staff who might believe that genuine threats have been headed off by these actions.

Having grown up in a childhood environment of pretend violence and gunplay, I find myself bemused by the current hysteria over toy guns. At age 8-9, my days were filled with wild shootouts in the back-alleys of the small city where we lived. Mornings and afternoons our neighborhood rang with cap-gun shots, as combatants hid behind garden walls and fired around the corners of houses and garages.

My own father – who evidently understood the importance of high-quality armaments – bought me a cap-pistol that featured a revolving cylinder on which a paper disk of six shots was placed. You fired the six shots, but then you had to reload – just like with a real revolver. (This would have met the requirements of currently proposed legislation.) The caps were jumbo-sized, so each shot roared realistically. I recall that the gun cost $4, which was a great deal of money for a toy at the time. No cheap plastic stuff then. I treasured that gun and fired hundreds – perhaps thousands – of rounds with it.

My buddies and I continued our daily shootouts at the OK Corral, Laredo, Dodge City, San Antonio, and other famous places until we suddenly discovered baseball at around age 9. I have no idea what happened to my realistic pistol, but I often think of it. To my knowledge, none of my 1951 boyhood comrades-in-arms entered a life of crime, ever shot anyone, carried a real gun, or even became a gun aficionado. (Today I own only a Harpers Ferry musket, 1853 edition, given to me by my grandpa.)

This was play. We were boys, learning to be men – doing what boys do and have done since at least George Washington's time, or even earlier.

My sons did the same in the 1970s. Both became real-life soldiers, but neither is a gunman today. They are raising their own sons now. Toy guns are scattered over the playrooms of their homes. Their boys won't be criminals, either. Their childhood fantasies will never cross over into reality. It doesn't work that way in healthy, decent families grounded in faith, love, industry and goodness. There is much confusion about these matters in American society today.

We do have a problem in the country with guns and violence, but it has naught to do with toy guns, leggo-pistols, or cocked fingers. To begin with, we seem to have forgotten Abraham Lincoln's famous question:

"If you call a tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have?"

The answer, of course, is "four," because calling a tail a leg doesn't make it one. Just so, calling a toy gun (or finger) a "dangerous weapon" does not make it so. What it does, however, is make school administrators and police authorities look ridiculous. Liane Rozzell, executive director or Families & Allies of Virginia's Youth, summarized the hysterical environment well when she said:

"A toy gun is no danger to anyone. A 10-year-old is not a fully formed adult... That kind of situation should be dealt with outside the courts and the justice system."

The other unintended consequence of the post-Newtown hysteria will be a windfall of lawsuits filed against school systems by parents of children who have been wrongly charged with "firearms violations" because of silly incidents with toy weapons. Schools will end up paying thousands – perhaps millions – in damages, and the careers of many good, decent administrators and teachers will be ruined because common sense flew out the window in the aftermath of a horrible crime which could not have been prevented by any of the measures being taken against brandishers of toy weapons (or fingers).

These school- or mall-shootings present a law-enforcement or security problem different from other crime-scenarios. Every year, for instance, 6,000 bank robberies are committed in the USA. Security systems stop some, but many are successful – at least temporarily. Some innocent people are killed during the course of these crimes. The FBI takes charge of the investigations, but we don't obsess about preventing bank robberies at all costs, or limiting how much cash a bank can have, etc. When a robbery occurs we try to find the guilty parties. A robbery doesn't change how we conduct business in our everyday lives. The onus is not on stopping all robberies.

Multiple murders during school-shootings are particularly horrible, of course, because they involve children. Americans have a particular revulsion to the murder of children, and have shown themselves willing to permit extreme measures in order to prevent such crimes. If we knew which measures would prevent them altogether, we would probably take them – within reasonable bounds.

Unfortunately, we do not know the magical solution to this problem – or, saying it differently, solutions that might be effective would probably exceed boundaries established by the Constitution (i.e., the Second Amendment). Confiscation of all weapons might stop school-shootings such as Sandy Hook, but this could not legally be done in our Republic. Such measures are impossible inside the boundaries of our legal system. Politicians who suggest otherwise are being dishonest; those who propose abolishing seminal provisions like the Second Amendment are dangerous.

It is entirely within the scope of human nature that some politicians will arise to exploit such situations for their own aggrandizement. Obviously we are seeing some of that now.

All that being said, calm and wise deliberation is needed regarding the prevention of these horrible crimes, to the greatest extent possible. Obviously, most of them are committed by mentally or emotionally disturbed individuals who need medication, therapy, incarceration, or all three. They should not be circulating freely in our society within easy reach of weapons. When they are detected by medical or educational personnel, legal authorities must be consulted.

Had this been standard operating procedure, several recent shootings, including Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech, might have been prevented. Those shooters were "grenades" waiting to go off, but people who knew about them did nothing, out of "privacy" concerns. At the very least, we need to protect from legal action those professionals who can help us to identify dangerous people before they kill more children.

Finally, we can stop the war on toy guns and on children – especially boys. Not a single child will be saved by this silly campaign. And while we're at it, a little education of school staff wouldn't hurt on what is a real gun and what isn't. Sanity needs to be restored here. Let's start now.