Is It Wrong to Let Kids Play With Toy Guns?

We asked experts, and here's what they had to say.

Toy guns are nothing new, nor is the question of whether or not kids should play with them. But, more than a personal parenting preference, the conundrum of toy guns is its representation of a genuine American problem: gun violence, which impacts children more than theoretically.

According to the National Institutes of Health, in the U.S., firearms-related injuries are the leading cause of death for children under 19. Not only that, parents of Black children must contend with the reality that just playing with a toy gun could result in their child being shot by police (like 12-year-old Tamir Rice).

So, how does all of this play into deciding whether or not your kids should play with toy guns? Read on to learn how gun violence impacts children and how experts say it should influence your decisions about allowing kids to play with toy guns.

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Gun Violence Statistics

Gun violence statistics in the U.S. are sobering, affecting children at alarming rates. Consider the following:

  • Firearm-related injuries are the number one cause of death for kids in the U.S.
  • The U.S. has experienced more than 300 school shootings.
  • Black Americans are three times more likely than white Americans to be shot by police.
  • Black children experience neighborhood gun violence at four times that of white children.

Mass shootings—particularly school shootings—occur at alarming rates in the United States. According to the World Population Review, the U.S. has experienced more than 300 school shootings. The rest of the countries in the world? Between zero and eight.

Compounding the problem is how children become conditioned to accept this violence as normal. Children in the U.S. prepare from young ages for active shooters in their schools through traumatic active shooter drills. These drills add to overwhelm, anxiety, and desensitization.

Further, Black children are disproportionally affected by gun violence. For example, a 2017 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that Black people in America are nearly three times as likely to be shot by police as white people. Relatedly, according to 2022 research published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Black children experience neighborhood firearm violence exposure at more than four times the rate as their white peers.

Physicians see the effects of gun violence on children in their work. Adiaha I. A. Spinks-Franklin, M.D., a board-certified developmental-behavioral pediatrician and president-elect for the Society for Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, sees children's lives devastated by the impact of gun violence.

She says some children experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result. "These experiences create significant changes in brain development of children that can lead to problems with learning, self-control, emotional regulation, sleep, appetite, and interpersonal skills."

So, while it's pretty straightforward to see the direct implications of gun violence on children, it's less clear how this relates to playing with toy guns.

Is There a Connection Between Gun Violence and Toy Guns?

There is a significant lack of research on gun violence in the U.S., which makes it difficult to prove or disprove people's feelings about gun violence and toy guns. That's in part due to something called the Dickey Amendment, a more than 20-year-old congressional provision that prohibits federal funding for research to advocate or promote gun control.

Following the Parkland school shooting in 2018, lawmakers compromised to "soften" the Dickey Amendment by allowing funding for research into the causes of gun violence. Since then, some research has evaluated the relationship between toy guns and gun violence.

Toy guns and real guns

A 2019 study published in JAMA examined the effect of gun violence in video games on children's behavior with real guns. Researchers found that kids who played these games were more likely to touch a real gun. Not only that, they handled guns longer and pulled the trigger more times than their peers who did not play these video games.

In her pediatric practice, Nina Agrawal, M.D., a child abuse pediatrician with expertise in trauma-informed care working in school health with Children’s Aid Society and a 2022–2023 Richard Nathan policy fellow with the Rockefeller Institute of Government, routinely talks with patients and caregivers about gun access and safety.

However, she points out an important fact that she believes deserves consideration in the debate about toy gunplay: Children are often unable to differentiate between real and toy guns. In fact, a 2019 analysis found that less than half of children could correctly identify a real gun when it was shown alongside a toy gun.

Toy guns and future criminality

The good news is that when it comes to criminality, research does not indicate toy guns make kids more violent. A 2018 study found that imaginative play with a toy gun was not likely to be a risk factor for later criminal behavior. Dr. Spinks-Franklin notes that aggressive pretend play is part of normal development and does not indicate that a child will grow up to be violent.

"Playing with Legos does not mean you’ll grow up to be an architect or engineer. Playing with dolls does not mean the child will grow up to be a good parent. These are all normal parts of child play that uses their imagination, pretend role play, and how children make sense of the world around them," she says.

The Risks Posed by Toy Guns

That said, there are some known risks associated with toy guns, including physical injury, mistaking real guns for toy guns, and mistaking toy guns for real guns.


Toy guns can and do pose a risk of physical injury, especially among BB guns and airsoft guns (known as non-powder weapons). As such, there has been a push to declassify these items as "toys."

In a 2020 study published in Journal of Pediatric Surgery, researchers found that among hospital admissions for non-powder weapon-related injuries in children, patients were predominantly male, lived in the South, were non-Hispanic white, and were low-income. Injuries included open head, neck, and torso wounds, bruising, traumatic brain injury, blindness, and vision disturbances.

Handling real guns

Another significant risk is children mistaking real guns for toy guns, which may result in children playing with accessible firearms found in the home. It doesn't help that many toys are manufactured to look like the real thing. Blurring the lines even further, says Dr. Argrawal, are real guns marketed to women in pinks and pastels, which can read to children as play guns.

Being shot by police

The flip side of mistaking toy guns for real guns is a stark reality that predominantly impacts Black children, like Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old who was shot by police while playing in a park with a toy gun.

"Sadly, Black children are more impacted by real-life gun violence because of the complex structural and historical racist policies that relegate them to hypersegregated neighborhoods with concentrated poverty, little access to decent education, adequate employment and health care while there is abundant access to guns, unemployment, and criminalization of their behaviors," says Dr. Spink-Franklin.

"There are equity issues in who plays with toy guns, which can be a factor in whether they should be played with at all," Dr. Argrawal says. "Why would you have a toy that is OK for some kids to play with and not for other kids to play with when some kids may die from playing with it?"

The Pros and Cons of Weapon Play

Experts are largely divided on the upsides and downsides of weapon play. On the one hand, some play therapists find value in their use in play therapy because it can help kids express their aggression in a safe and controlled way.

On the other hand, other play therapists argue that play guns are unnecessary and harmful, increasing the likelihood that a child will display aggression. Dr. Agrawal believes a vital thing to consider when considering the use of play guns is to reflect on the goal of a gun. "You can point it at somebody; that's a threat. You can pull the trigger—the point of pulling the trigger is to kill that person," she says.

When kids are scared of going to the doctor, you get them a pretend doctor kit so they become more used to it and more comfortable with the tools. Dr. Agrawal sees the correlation and wonders if that's what we want with children and guns—for them to be more comfortable with them.

She adds, "I was thinking about simulated child play, and we don't simulate smoking cigarettes; we don't simulate drinking alcohol." In other words, gunplay stands alone in encouraged pretend play that in real life is harmful and has dangerous consequences.

Safety Tips for Toy Guns

At the end of the day, whether or not to allow kids to play with toy weapons, including toy guns, is a personal decision that Dr. Spinks-Franklin says is often influenced by caregivers' culture, religion, individual beliefs, and practices.

"We cannot attribute adult thoughts or motivations to children. Parents should teach their children safety and allow their children to engage in free play with all sorts of toys, including toy weapons if that is their choice," she says.

If you do decide to allow your child access to toy guns, Mott's Children's Hospital at the University of Michigan Health offers the following safety tips for toy gunplay:

  • Supervise pellet and BB gunplay and reserve these for older teens.
  • Do not allow children to play with toy guns that look realistic.
  • Always retain the orange cap on the barrel of BB and air guns.
  • Wear eye protection when using toy guns with projectiles such as airsoft guns and paintball guns.
  • Wear hearing protection when playing with loud guns and only use them outdoors.
  • Keep caps from toy guns out of kids' pockets because they can cause burn injuries.

In addition, it's crucial that children do not have access to real guns in the home. If you have firearms in your home, keep them unloaded and locked away, store ammunition in a separate location, and be sure your children do not know where you keep the keys. Experts also advise that parents ask about guns and gun storage in homes where their children spend time.

One rule that should be hammered home with kids: If you ever see a real gun, or even one you think might be real, don't touch it, and always go find a grown-up.

The Bottom Line

As a parent, you don't have to buy toy guns if they make you uncomfortable, and since experts are divided on them, naturally, parents will be, too. But, as Dr. Spinks-Franklin points out, whether or not your kids play with toy guns doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing decision.

"Parents can decide what type of toy guns they allow their children to have. Maybe water guns are OK, but parents do not want BB guns because of the risk of injury. Banning all gunplay may backfire on parents because little children who want to engage in imaginative play with make-believe guns can turn a pencil into a toy gun," she says.

Another critical factor that Dr. Agrawal points out is consent. "Children have the right to consent to that type of play, that it's not one person wielding a gun and the other child just going along with it secondarily." And remember, consent isn't fixed. So, maybe a child agrees initially to play but then changes their mind. That, too, should be respected.

Finally, choose a location that is safer for everyone. For example, in the daylight, outdoors, and supervised at a child's home are always better options than a public location like a park or school (most schools don't allow them anyway).

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  1. Racial/Ethnic Disparities in the Use of Lethal Force by US Police, 2010–2014. American Journal of Public Health. 2016.

  2. Racial Disparities in Child Exposure to Firearm Violence Before and During COVID-19. American Journal of Preventative Medicine. 2022.

  3. Effect of Exposure to Gun Violence in Video Games on Children’s Dangerous Behavior With Real Guns. JAMA. 2019.

  4. A comparison of parental firearm storage patterns and children's access to firearms. Pediatrics. 2019.

  5. Learning to blast a way into crime, or just good clean fun? Examining aggressive play with toy weapons and its relation with crime. Criminal Behavior and Mental Health. 2018.

  6. Toy Guns, Real Danger: An Update on Pediatric Injury Patterns Related to Nonpowder Weapons. Journal of Pediatric Surgery. 2019.

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