by Mary Bonina

One of my son Gianni’s favorite toys when he was a toddler and preschooler was a small, plastic “workbench” and drill. It was compact, so he could carry it around with him and set it up wherever he felt like, and busy himself drilling large plastic “screws” into the holes on the bench. The keyword here is plastic; it was a toy for pretending. This was, I thought, an innocent activity that would help him develop precision and manual dexterity. My son enjoyed the drilling, as you might imagine. He and his workbench were on the floor next to me in the kitchen when I was preparing dinner. When his dad sat on the couch reading, Gianni sat on the floor at his feet, drilling away. Or he went into his room and talked through some play scenario he imagined with it.

When he was three, so that I could work I enrolled him for a few days a week in a home day care situation. Rita, the day care provider, lived near a shopping mall and a city park and usually at some point during the day she would take her charges out for a walk and outdoor play, if the weather allowed. On very hot summer afternoons I learned that they went to the shopping mall, where there was an air-conditioned big box toy store, and she would let the kids loose in the aisles. I could imagine the scene that resulted, having gone shopping for birthday gifts with my son at that store. But it was cooler inside and they all got some exercise, I suppose, running from one toy to another, and according to my son, even riding tricycles on display, up and down the aisles. As far as I know, the management never banned them from the store, even though they didn’t purchase any toys and must have caused some commotion. Perhaps they thought that after the kids had seen what was for sale, they’d go home and pester their parents to buy them what they wanted.

The city park near Rita’s home is the place where I go running now, but when my son was small, I didn’t really know it. I’ve since learned that it is a true city park, one I refer to as Texas, because it is so large. It reflects the multi-cultural character of Cambridge, and many day care providers, parents, and babysitters take kids there. The park is also located near several elementary level schools, so teachers and kids from Montessori and another private school nearby, as well as the neighboring Catholic School and a Cambridge Public School, make good use of the playground, the soccer and baseball fields, and the track. My son and the other children in Rita’s care had plenty of playmates to engage with at the park.

One afternoon after Gianni came home from day care, I was folding clothes and putting them away, trying to catch up on chores that had been put off until I finished work. He snuck up on me with his plastic drill in hand—no workbench in sight—and he pointed the drill at me, startling me on two counts. I hadn’t known that he was in the room, but more surprisingly, he was using the drill not as I’d ever seen him use it; he was pointing it at me, so it became a facsimile of a gun. He pulled the trigger so it made its drilling sound and I thought of a machine gun.

“What’s that?” I asked him, stunned.

“It’s a tooka, Mom,” he answered. “Take things with. I’m a tooka man.”

I thought of a blues song, but then I realized that what had happened was that he didn’t know the vocabulary, but he had somehow learned—at the park with the other kids, I figured—what an armed robbery was. A tooka was a gun. A tooka man was a thief or robber.  If I had naively thought I could shelter him from knowing of such things at least until he went to school, I now had hard evidence that my son would learn on his own simply by observing and engaging in play with other children, no matter how hard I tried to protect him from what I thought would taint his development. Because Gianni was a creative, intelligent, and curious child he would use his abilities and knowledge base to understand what others were up to, even if it wasn’t explained to him and even if he didn’t have the precise vocabulary for what he was observing.

After that day I bought him swords—also plastic— and when he went to a Renaissance fair with a friend’s family, I didn’t object that he’d used the money he’d been given for a treat or a souvenir, to buy a very fancy plastic sword that came with a scabbard. For a long time though, I didn’t buy him a toy gun, not until he discovered a rubber band gun at a Maine flea market. Something about that gun being made of wood and obviously hand-made for a particular little boy’s play, made it seem more benign. And not long after that he wanted a water pistol for backyard play, and I gave into that, too—even a gigantic water gun with a big tank attached to it—putting up with the muddy clothes that had to be washed after he got a good soaking in an energetic water battle.

I didn’t finally give in to this sword and gunplay just because he was able to comprehend the reasoning behind my objections or because I knew that censorship could not hold, since in life he would have to learn to make his own choices and as a parent I should be encouraging that. I allowed this play long before Gianni had reached the age of reason, realizing the impossibility of trying to protect him from what I thought would have the effect of making violence seem ordinary. I was admitting that violence—and play at being violent— permeated our culture and for this reason my efforts to shield him from it were futile. But there were other reasons, too, I would learn, to allow these kinds of toys to be part of his play.

I began to think of my own childhood, of growing up in the fifties and early sixties. I remember that I wanted to be a cowgirl when I grew up. Perhaps the fact that there were over one hundred western series aired on television networks from 1949 through the late 1960s had something to do with that. Television was new in households in the 1950s and as it was in our family, TV viewing became the primary entertainment in the U.S. My sisters and I loved being transported to the 19th century west, and so the setting and the way that justice was served at that time loomed large in our imaginations. We especially loved watching The Lone Ranger, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, and Rawhide. I still remember singing at the top of my lungs with my sister Peg, the Wyatt Earp theme song, lauding him as “brave, courageous, and bold.” That’s what I wanted to be, too:  brave, courageous, and bold. I wanted a horse and holster with a pistol in each pocket. Even though Peg was a little younger than I was she watched westerns with me, and over and over in my childhood I remember my mother telling the story of bringing our new baby brother home from the hospital, quoting what Peg had said when she’d first laid eyes upon him. “Him’s nose looks like a little cowboy’s.” I’d been vigilant about monitoring my son’s television and movie viewing whereas my parents had not been with me, and I had turned out all right. But the world had changed considerably since my childhood, I told myself.

In general I also tried to stay away from purchasing toys that marketed pop culture—spinoffs from films and television series—at least for a while. But as he got older and had many friends and playmates, Gianni discovered Star Wars, Star Trek, Might Morphen Power Rangers, and on and on. But until he was five I’d mistakenly thought that the Boston PBS station was the only television he was watching: Barney, Arthur, Bill Nigh the Science Guy, Sesame Street, Where in the World is Carmen San Diego, and Julia Child. From watching Julia’s cooking show he became clever at doing an impression of her. My censoring of Gianni’s TV watching was not to continue, though. I became aware that he had been watching programs other than those public television ones on different channels at a neighborhood friend’s house, when he asked me one afternoon if we could get one of those TVs that had other stations, like the one at his friend Alex’s house. And so I let my television viewing rule lapse.


          I was a post World War II baby, born smack in the middle of the twentieth century. On both sides of my family military service was limited. My father and his brother had remained on the home front during the War because of poor eyesight. Although my dad was probably already suffering from night blindness by the time he’d have been conscripted into the Army, he did however see well enough to hold a day job at the Charlestown (MA) Navy Yard, as a skilled machinist, a toolmaker with expert manual dexterity. He was the son of an immigrant from Sicily who became an American citizen and right after, was drafted to serve in the First World War; lucky for my grandfather, the Armistice was signed just as he was on a bus headed to basic training.

My mother’s only brother had died in infancy, so she didn’t have a sibling who’d served in the military during the Second World War either. Her sister Sally—the only one of her two sisters who had children—six of them: three boys and three girls—wouldn’t allow my cousins to have toy guns. As I grew older I realized that most likely she’d forbidden them to play stick ‘em up or War because her husband had served in the U.S. Marine Corps during WWII as a rifle instructor, so she knew the toll the war had taken on him and on his friends and family who’d served. My own mother though didn’t ban toy guns in our house. My brother, born in 1956, was the last of her four children. But even before he was old enough for play, my sisters Peg, Kate, and I had water and cap guns—and even when we misplaced or lost our toy pistols, we would take our little boxes of rolls of caps out to the backyard and unravel and smash the red strips with rocks or pieces of brick, causing little explosions.

As I grew older though, I would understand first hand the cost of war and violence. As someone who came of age in the 1960s, after graduating from high school, knowing that young men who’d been my classmates for years were dying in Vietnam, or returning from service afflicted with physical and mental disabilities as a result, I became involved in anti-war protests to end the War. I had begun to realize that countries became involved in war not necessarily for humanitarian reasons, though their purpose sometimes masqueraded that way. Not all tyrants who wanted control of a population as Hitler did in the Second World War were successfully deposed either. And countries often engaged in such conflicts over territory and resources, and many wars left worst situations in their wake. By the time my brother had reached the age when he’d have been expected to serve in the military, the Vietnam War was over, the Draft ended, and he, as many of our generation, had no interest whatsoever in becoming a soldier. It was what I learned from Vietnam that made me struggle to raise my son to be a thoughtful and peace-loving man.

When Gianni was about eight years old we visited a long-time friend of mine in another city. My husband and I sat talking with Maura in the kitchen of her home as she made coffee drinks for us, showing off her new espresso maker. Gianni went off upstairs to play with her sons and their friends.

Maura lived in a big Victorian house. Across from the main entrance there was a central staircase leading to the upstairs bedrooms, which were off a long hall. Another staircase at the back end of the hall led downstairs into the kitchen. As we talked there, we could hear a good deal of movement overhead, and then suddenly, appearing seemingly out of nowhere, one of Maura’s sons landed in the kitchen after flying down the back stairway. I hadn’t realized the layout of the house with the second staircase in the kitchen until he’d appeared.

He was toting a very real-looking rifle and apparently attempting to escape the opposing faction chasing him. They were playing IRA. Maura was born in Ireland.

I was surprised to see him with a rifle—toy or not—knowing Maura’s association with mutual friends who were Quakers and community peace activists.

“You let them have guns?” I said.

Maura then described how it had come about that she’d relaxed her rule of no guns, allowing her sons to be engaged in war play with toy rifles. She vividly described the physical injuries they’d visited upon each other before she allowed the guns to be introduced into their play. She’d made many trips to the ER, she said, to have their cuts stitched up and their broken bones set.

“I was in the ER with them all the time.”

She explained that it was our peace activist friend who was involved in Campus Ministry in the city, who’d made the suggestion that she ought to allow them to have toy guns. They would stop beating each other up if they could play at pretend conflicts, he’d told her. She was happy to say, he’d been right.

The incident at Maura’s house only came back to me recently, when Gianni, now twenty-six years old, returned from a wedding he’d gone to in Wisconsin, of friends he’d met while teaching English in South Korea for a couple of years after college. When he came back from the Midwest, I asked him about his trip.

The night before the wedding, he told me, there’d been a bachelor party that seemed unusual to me. It wasn’t a drunken revel with a teasing exotic dancer or a real stripper for entertainment, like those I’d heard of, or any such celebration of his friend’s last night as a single man. The groom had chosen to have a shooting party instead; they’d gone to a makeshift shooting range and they’d taken turns, Gianni included, firing off an assortment of guns and rifles. 

“What was that like?” I asked, more than a little surprised.

His answer surprised me more than the event itself.

“I loved it!” he said.

He sounded elated all over again, telling me about it.

So the next time we got together we talked at length about the bachelor party.

I got the details that a college friend of the groom, who was also the disc jockey for the wedding reception, had organized it.

The shooting range had not been what Gianni had expected. He’d thought it would be “a real one,” like what he’d seen on “TV shows—cop shows, and stuff.” But they had stopped at a gas station where there was a sign for bait, hunting, and other services. The organizer of the shooting party went inside to pick up a key. There was no one there, but he’d made arrangements and found it. Getting back into his vehicle, he drove them down a dirt road, stopped at a gate to get out to unlock it, and got back in the truck and drove in.

“It was a totally empty hillside, basically a couple of buildings and some concrete seats and tables. There were boards and stuff up to shoot on the hillside,” my son explained. “It was in the middle of fucking nowhere. Probably on the east coast there has to be someone there, legally. The laws are probably very regulated.”

I wanted to know what kind of guns they used, where they got them, and learned that the organizer of this party had brought his own guns—a lot of guns.

“There were a bunch of hand guns; Glocks, a revolver. There were a bunch of A15’s, technically assault rifles, and what looked like a hunting rifle, but you don’t have to cock it each time.” The hunting rifle had been modified, so it was semi-automatic.

It seemed to me that that was a lot of weaponry for one guy to have, but Gianni defended him.

“He was an enthusiast,” he said, “not someone who got guns to protect himself, but someone who liked to go to a gun range, do target practice.” His assessment was that he was “a hobbyist” and he compared him to “someone who gets into bowling. They get a nice ball. They get bowling shoes, a hand guard, a wrist thing.”

I asked about the others who were at the bachelor party.

“Everyone was pretty nice,” he said. “And the guy who organized it was one of the nicest people. He showed us all the safety stuff and was pretty diligent about everything, so it was nice. We were just shooting some stuff. Like target practice. It was interesting. I’d never shot a gun before. I didn’t grow up in a place where people advertise having guns or where people seemed to have a lot of guns.”

What I was mainly interested in hearing Gianni talk about was how it actually felt to hold those guns, to fire them—real guns, not toys, and not computer video game guns—and I wanted to know if he’d tried out all of the guns, including the AR15.

“I shot the Glock. And I shot the hunting rifle thing—there was not a lot of kickback on it.”

That surprised him, but he’d been frightened by it nevertheless.

“I thought the most scary part was how loud it was. It wasn’t really scary to shoot but there was no silencer for the hunting rifle.”

They only had disposable earplugs, since no one was running this shooting range and more protective ear cuffs could not be rented. Only the organizer had brought his own.

Gianni chose not to shoot the AR15. “It was so loud,” he said, “and I felt that it was like too much. I didn’t want to do that. I felt that if I’d had it in my hands it would be like shaking my whole body.”

This made me consider why the leader of this shooting party would even own such weapons, and I also wondered about the others in the group who might have shot that assault rifle, whether they were big guys, bigger than Gianni, who is almost six feet tall and a pretty solid guy. But no, he said.
“They were the same size as me. But they were all from Wisconsin. They don’t have that gun and some of them didn’t seem that involved in gun culture either. Maybe they hunted with their uncle or their father. The only one who had a lot of guns,” he said, “was the guy who brought us there. He had a 20 round clip for his gun, which I’m pretty sure is illegal in Massachusetts.”

Just as I had mistakenly thought when Gianni was younger, that allowing him to have toy guns would pre-dispose him to an acceptance of violence in our culture, I was wondering whether having been a serious player of video games for years made him more comfortable with the idea of shooting real guns, than he might have been otherwise. He was quick to answer.

“I’ve never shot a gun before, but I’ve shot a million fake guns in video games and it hasn’t affected me. It was just as surprising and kind of scary shooting real ones, as if I’d never played a video game before.”

He went on, emphasizing his point, because I was still surprised.

“I play a lot of video games, shoot a lot of things in video games, but it’s not the same at all because in shooting a gun, you feel a small explosion happening right next to you. Video games are not real. You can’t actually equate video games to anything real.”

I felt from Gianni’s description of the physicality of the act, that he certainly understood and respected the destructive potential of using those guns—the fact that the guns at the bachelor party were designed as weapons—and that his experience that day had reinforced for him what he already knew, that toy gun and video game play scenarios should be seen as fiction and nothing more. Determined to be a parent who was engaged in her son’s behavioral development, I had ignored the fact that there is no definitive scientific evidence that this kind of play would lead him to future violent acts, even though politicians and gun enthusiasts alike make these claims. The NRA has funded political campaigns that would consistently oppose further regulation of gun sales. They have successfully eliminated the ban on assault weapons, and recently prevented a ban on bump stocks. Yet they brought out Vice President Wayne La Pierre to speak at a press conference one week after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. He said, “Guns don’t kill people, video games, the media, and Obama’s budget kill people.” He went on to say that “There exists in this country, sadly, a callous, corrupt, and corrupting shadow industry that sells and stows violence against its own people through vicious, violent video games…” (Mother Jones, Erik Kaine: “The Truth About Video Games and Gun Violence,” June 11, 2013)

About the Author:

Mary Bonina is author of the memoir My Father’s Eyes (2013) and three poetry collections— Clear Eye Tea (2010), Living Proof  (2007), and Lunch in Chinatown (finalist, Teacher’s Voice chapbook competition). She won the Boston Contemporary AuthorsUrbanArts Award for “Drift,” now a permanent public art installation, the poem carved in a granite monolith outside the Green St. subway station. Commissioned by composer Paul Sayed, her three poems, Grace in the Wind inspired Sayed’s composition for piano, cello, and soprano which premiered at Longy School of Music, Bard College, Cambridge, Massachusetts, November 2012. Bonina’s poetry and prose credits include Salamander, English Journal, Red Brick Review, Muddy River ReviewGulf Stream, and many other journals and three anthologies including Voices of the City from Rutgers University Center for Ethnicity, Culture, and Modern Experience with Hanging Loose Press, and Entering the Real World: VCCA Poets on Mt. Angelo. “Our Mutual Landscape,” Bonina’s personal essay/memoir on the work of poet Christopher Gilbert and his community of poets in the 1970s appeared in the Worcester Review, an annual (2013). Bonina serves on the Board of the Writers’ Room of Boston, Inc. She earned her MFA at the Warren Wilson Program for Writers.