When my seven-year-old stepson Freddy presented me with his list for Santa Claus this year, I was relieved. Lately I've noticed a premature adolescent jadedness creeping into his mannerisms, and I'd been worried he might take it upon himself to disillusion his younger brother James who, at 3 1/2, is still a fervent believer.
"What a sweet surprise," I thought, unfolding the list. It was written in festive red cursive and read as follows:
1. An AK47
2. A catapult (life size)
3. Another Swiss Army knife (Daddy packed the one I got for my birthday in the wrong bag and the MEANIE security man took it away at the airport.)
4. Nerf Zombie Strike Flip Fury
5. Nerf Elite Rhino Strike Blaster
6. More bullets (infinity)
7. A lifetime supply of mint chocolate chip ice cream
This list wasn't Freddy's way of having me on – it was a unilateral declaration of war.
My stepson was a toddler when we first met, and he regarded me with a mixture of guarded affection and well-founded suspicion. One of my first, idealistic moves as his new liberal Canadian stepmother was to confiscate his substantial collection of toy guns and hide them in a shopping bag at the bottom of the laundry hamper.
Oddly, he didn't seem to notice. Nor did his father, who like most British men of his generation has a distinctly laissez-faire attitude toward toy firearms.
Britain, despite having much higher rates of petty crime and alcohol-related street violence than Canada, has only a fraction of the firearm-related deaths. Most police here aren't even armed. Because of this, toy guns are just part of the regular landscape of childhood, right up there with gendered Lego and Cowboy and "Indian"-themed Halloween costumes. (Don't even get me started.)
By contrast, many middle-class Canadian parents I know regard gun toys (save the occasional water pistol) with the same wariness we reserve for candy cigarettes and padded bikini tops for girls. This liberal anxiety is the natural result of our proximity to the deranged powder keg of the United States, a country whose relationship with mass shootings can be summed up by a headline in the satirical U.S. news site, the Onion: " 'No way to prevent this,' says only nation where this ever happens."
At first I thought my domestic-disarmament policy was working, but after Freddy's last birthday party, I realized my mistake. After opening the enormous haul of military battleships, supersoaker water pistols and light-up laser guns that his friends' parents see as perfectly acceptable birthday presents, he threw himself across his pile of gifts and wailed, "Please Leah, let me keep my killing toys!" In retrospect, I wonder if I should have listened. Perhaps if I had, his obsession with weaponry might have waned. (Confession: I confiscated and regifted the worst of the lot.)
As it stands now, both boys in my house talk more or less constantly of killing. The more my husband and I earnestly try to impress upon them the real-life horrors of terrorism, mass shootings and the carnage of the ongoing missile attacks on Syria, et cetera, the more their murderous little eyes widen and their hunger for make-believe violence grows. Their blood-thirstiness seems to flourish in inverse proportion to the number of anatomically correct dolls, toy kitchens and gender-neutral non-conflict-based games I press upon them. Just last week, my three-year-old told me that when he grows up he wants to be "a flying soldier with loads of guns and a cricket bat for killing zombies who try to eat my brain."
Gazing down at his chubby cheeks, I thought of that notorious family Christmas card sent out by Nevada Republican Michele Fiore, which featured her entire extended family – including her five-year-old grandson Jake – posing in festive red tops and holding guns. I consoled myself with the thought that, right now, little Jake is begging his grandma for an Easy-Bake Oven and a 3-D jigsaw kit.
When I try to introduce pro-gun-control arguments to my kids, their instant response is the same kind of fact-allergic, closed-loop thinking favoured by NRA supporters in the United States. "Santa doesn't bring kids guns for Christmas because in real life guns are dangerous and kill people," I told Freddy the other day.
He looked at me like I was a long-haired bleeding heart naively chaining myself to a redwood pine as the logging trucks moved in. "But what are we supposed to do if aliens come from outer space and try to kidnap us?" he queried. "WHO'S GOING TO PROTECT OUR FAMILY THEN?"
The sort of apocalyptic, fear-based thinking that leads so many Americans to defend their right to bear arms is like the funhouse-mirror reflection of the intergalactic zombie battles that drive my kids' desires for a full metal jacket. Except that kids are kids and adults have the ability – in theory – to distinguish between fantasy and reality. Looking at the Fiore Christmas card, however, one begins to wonder.
Luckily enough, this house isn't controlled by Republicans. So far Santa's response has been to get them a carpentry kit, a guitar, two Irish knit sweaters and a pile of classic children's books.
Let the battle rage on.