Toy Guns and Kids: A Good Idea, or No?

The debate of whether or not young kids should have ready access to firearms is relatively simple. Almost no one will argue that a small child should be able to walk off with a Glock, or even a 22 LR Marlin, at random. However, when you change that to a discussion about toy guns, the tune changes. Many people will say there’s no harm done because they aren’t real while others feel it’s wise to prohibit any and all contact with toy guns. Today we’re going to discuss common questions about kids and toy guns; in the end, the decision is yours.

Child in sodier costume holding a toy gun
There are a lot of relatively realistic toy guns on the market. Whether or not you let your kid play with them has to do with both personal choices and dedication to safety. (Photo credit: Windy City Novelties)

What is a toy gun?

This might sound like an odd question, but there are a lot of possibilities—and some confusion—about what constitutes a toy gun. After all, there are non-firing replicas, paperweights, Blue Guns, and all manner of things made to look like a gun, but not to be fired. For the purposes of this article, when toy guns are referenced, we’re referring to actual toys such as Nerf guns, squirt guns, and the like. We will touch on airsoft guns because they’re relevant in the realm of toys. But the following information isn’t meant to pertain to the aforementioned “not gun” guns.

Blue gun for training, Sig P250
Most gun owners won’t view this Blue Gun as a toy. It’s a training tool, and it’s an inert lump of molded plastic. (Photo credit: Just Holster It)

When you consider this from a legal standpoint, it’s even more confusing. Here’s a definition from Law Insider:

Toy Guns means any imitation of any original firearm that was manufactured, designed and produced since 1898, including water guns, replica non-guns, air-soft guns firing non-metallic projectiles, and B-B, paint-ball, and pellet-firing air guns that expel a projectile through the force of air pressure, or any other object or device reasonably capable of being mistaken for a firearm. The term “toy gun” does not include any antique firearm as defined in this Chapter.

You can see why this needs clarity. For our purposes, we aren’t talking about non-gun replicas, starter pistols, and so on. This is about literal toys that are meant to be fired but do not shoot live ammunition—only foam darts, water, the type of plastic pellets found in airsoft, or any other objects that are not technically ammunition.

Nerf dart toy guns
These Nerf dart guns are clearly toys…right? (Photo credit: Nerf)

Are guns really ever “toys”?

Literally speaking, no, guns aren’t toys and should not be explained or construed as such. Guns are tools with specific purposes—self-defense and hunting—and it’s vital kids understand that. Unlike adults, kids tend not to have the same understanding of consequences and permanence. Showing them what a real gun can do and demonstrating the sheer damage of a wound cavity can be a useful lesson.

collage of water guns
There are a lot of squirt guns out there that are clearly nothing but water toys, but there are also squirt guns made to look a lot like real, functional firearms. (Photo credit: Walmart)

So, is there a circumstance under which guns are toys? Yes, and no. There are certain types of toys like squirt guns that are blatantly not functioning firearms, but are definitely toys. When you’re dealing with the comprehension levels of small kids, it might be useful to not refer to something like a squirt gun as a gun.

SBR - toy gun or not?
Some toy guns are so realistic it’s nearly impossible to tell if they’re fake or not. Can you tell at a glance whether this is real…or fake? (Photo credit: NBC15)

Should kids play with toy guns?

In the end, it’s up to the parents whether kids play with toy guns. Consider this advice on the matter, and do with it what you will.

As a mother to kids spanning ages 1 to almost 20, I’ve learned a lot. As a result, my youngest is the recipient of the strictest rules about toy guns. Here’s the reality: Kids are going to play some sort of gun-related game. Maybe it’s cowboys and Indians; maybe it’s cops and robbers. Regardless, your kids will either turn their fingers into guns or find a handy stick to fill in for the gun while they play. And hey, playing is important. It’s a vital part of learning and helping their growing minds develop. That doesn’t mean you can’t—or shouldn’t—set boundaries, though.

Should kids be playing with toy guns? That depends on the kind of play and the specific toy.

A toddler using a piece of wood as a make-believe gun.
A toddler using a piece of wood as a make-believe gun. (Photo credit: KinderCare)

What rules should there be for playing with toy guns?

Generally speaking, it’s a wise idea to have a specific set of rules for playing with toy guns. One reason for this is that it can be difficult for small children to tell the difference between a real gun and a toy gun. Of course, there are times when you’re going to allow otherwise forbidden behavior like shooting at another person (like with squirt guns). How do you do it? We have a few suggestions.

First and foremost, kids of any age should be familiar with and follow the four rules of gun safety. By starting at an early age and working to memorize the rules, kids are far more likely to be safe with guns than they are if you wait too long. That doesn’t mean you can’t teach older kids about gun safety, because you can, only that those rules and practices will be more deeply ingrained if you get started young.

real gun painted to look like a Nerf toy gun
No, this isn’t a toy. It’s a gun someone painted to look like a Nerf toy. (Photo credit: WCNC.com)

The four safety rules are:

  • Treat all guns as if they are loaded.
  • Never let the muzzle cover anything you aren’t willing to destroy.
  • Keep your finger off the trigger until you’re on target.
  • Always be sure of your target and what is beyond it.

Rules for playing with toy guns might include:

  • No “shooting” darts or water at the face
  • Practice indexing finger away from the trigger
  • Don’t “shoot” at animals, ever
  • Confirm it is a toy. This might sound odd, but it’s not a bad idea to confirm the object is a toy—twice—before commencing with play.
  • Asking permission from an adult and showing them the toy, for the above reason.

Now, there are also rules for adults regarding the toy guns allowed in the house. Your specific house rules may vary, but these are some suggested guidelines:

  • No realistic-appearing toys
  • Orange-tip alone is not enough to say a gun is a toy
  • No toys that take seemingly realistic ammunition (stick to foam darts and water)
  • Airsoft and paintball are for target practice and training simulations, not play
  • Toy play is restricted to certain areas
 
toy gun - rifle with accessories
When choosing toy guns for your kids, ask yourself if they’re easily identifiable as toys at a glance. (Photo credit: Business Insider India)

Should toy guns be allowed at all?

Whether or not you allow your kids to play with toy guns at all is a personal choice. Many gun owners choose to prohibit toy guns entirely, and it’s understandable. Today there are a lot of real firearms available that are built to look like toys, whether they’re Nerf guns, squirt guns, or Legos. There are even real guns painted to look like the Blue Guns many of us use for training purposes.

If you’re going to permit playing with toy guns, it’s wise to make specific rules and stick to them. Do avoid any so-called toy that looks even remotely real. Remember, it might be an airsoft or other type of “harmless” gun, but it’s really hard to tell at a glance. Letting your kids have a toy gun? It should be blatantly obvious it’s a toy without needing to stop and examine it.

A girl and her custom-painted AR-15.
A girl and her custom-painted AR-15. (Photo credit: River Cities Reader)

It’s a good idea to make the rules between obviously toy guns and real guns crystal clear. Although it might seem repetitive, continue explaining the difference between a toy and a real gun every time your kids play with toys. Do this until they clearly understand it. Remember that every child is different, so there is no one way or age to communicate these things. There’s no such thing as being too safe, and when it comes to allowing kids to play with toy guns, several layers of additional caution aren’t only a good idea, they’re a must.

Kat Ainsworth Stevens is a long-time outdoor writer, official OGC (Original Gun Cognoscenti), and author of Handgun Hunting: a Comprehensive Guide to Choosing and Using the Right Firearms for Big and Small Game. Der Teufel Katze has written for a number of industry publications (print and online) and edited some of the others, so chances are you've seen or read her work before, somewhere. A woman of eclectic background and habits, Kat has been carrying concealed for over two decades, used to be a farrier, and worked for a long time in emergency veterinary medicine. She prefers big bores, enjoys K9 Search & Rescue, and has a Master's Degree in Pitiless Snarkastic Delivery.

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