Gun-Control Debate Hits $16 Billion Toy Industry

Newtown Tragedy Drives Concerns Over Play Weapons, Putting Marketers Like Hasbro's Nerf on the Defensive

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As the debate over gun control heats up across the country, another one is simmering on the nation's playgrounds over their toy counterparts.

For some parents, the horror of the Newton, Conn., shootings has spurred them to take up the cause of toy-gun control, banning them at home and writing blog posts and op-ed pieces asking others to do the same.

Meredith Carroll, a columnist for the Denver Post, is one such mom who would prefer that there were no toy guns on retail shelves, and has banned her children from playing with them.

"After Newtown, I was able to articulate to myself more that the responsibility starts at home," she said. "My husband and I were so disturbed that we really sat down and thought about it and discussed what can we do to make a difference? ... It's one very small level in our home. But how do you start a movement? One person at a time."

Ms. Carroll is not only talking about toy guns, but also wants to keep violent video games out of younger children's hands. She admits she does not tie the Newtown shooter's actions directly to violent video games, but she does believe the games, along with pretend guns, contribute to "a culture of violence."

She's not alone. School districts across the country are cracking down on toy-gun play with several recent suspensions of young boys who "shot" classmates with their fingers. One 5-year-old girl in Pennsylvania was recently suspended for talking about shooting classmates and herself with her pink Hello Kitty bubble gun.

And so toymakers find themselves in what is not a completely unfamiliar position -- Sears & Roebuck pulled all the toy guns out of its annual holiday Wish Book in 1968 after the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and there have been some parents and activists speaking out against toy guns for years.

John Frascotti, CMO of Hasbro which makes Nerf toys, said, "Nerf is all about active play and active fun. If you ask kids as young as when they're able to play, up through parents and grandparents, everyone understands that these are toys. ... They understand this is play and this is fun, and I think to try to confuse it and meld it into a whole bunch of other things in this political discourse that's going on, may be just bad."

When asked if Hasbro has been contacted more after the Newtown shooting by parents against toy guns, he said, "No, not in a big way."

The Toy Industry Association agreed, and said, in a statement: "Toys themselves do not promote aggressive behavior. There are no violent or nonviolent toys. Quite often, military and other role-play items may help kids work through or cope with what is happening in the world around them through play rather than through outwardly aggressive behavior." Psychologists and some teachers, in fact, think similarly.

"Blaming toy guns for adult male violence or mass shooting defies common sense. Banning toy guns would be misguided, silly, even delusional. It would have no impact at all on our rate of adult violence. Healthy boys know the difference between pretend play and actually hurting someone," said Michael Thompson, author of "Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys." "Playing heroic hunt-and-chase games is something boys have done forever. They have done it with sticks and balls and they do it with toy guns. It often represents the best of boys: their desire to be strong, heroic and to stand up for what is right, to protect their homes and kill villains."

Banning such type of play isn't a good idea, said Jane Katch, a teacher and author of "Under Deadman's Skin: Discovering the Meaning of Children's Violent Play."

She has found in her many years of teaching young children -- the title of the book is the name of a game her kindergarten students played -- is that kind of play is more about trying to figure things out, or seeing how it feels to be the hero, or even the victim. She and Mr. Thompson both agreed that there are no studies and no evidence that links playing with toy guns to real acts of violence.

"Kids should be playing things out. It also helps with their social skills which we do know helps prevent violence," Ms. Katch said. "What's strange I think, is that the media we expose kids to is violent and scary, and then at the exact same time, we're prohibiting them from playing that out. The implication that you'll grow up to shoot people is just ridiculous."

Today's toy guns are already fairly heavily regulated by both federal and state laws that mandate things like the toys must be made in non-gun colors like green or yellow or purple and if not, have an orange tip, said Jim Silver, editor of Time to Play mag online.

Toy guns are a real category of products, and are very different than the blasters or zappers like Nerfs or Maya Group's Xploderz, said Mr. Silver. True toy guns include the realistic type Airsoft guns and Hunter Dan guns for instance, that by law can only be marketed to ages 14 and older and are sold in the sporting guns aisle away from toys, he said.

Nerf and other makers of toy foam and water shooters likely won't face any real boycotts or bans. Mr. Silver pointed out that in England, which has some of the toughest gun laws in the world, Nerf guns are extremely popular and well accepted. Although most toy companies haven't reported results yet, he believes toy-gun sales were not affected this past holiday. Hasbro's Nerf, the leading brand, had sales of $410 million in 2011, which it reported as flat from 2010.

Marc Rosenberg, CEO of SkyBluePink Concepts and a longtime toy marketer noted that it's not an easy issue for toymakers, especially in the current environment.

"The key is allowing the play pattern without glorifying the weaponry," he said. "Banning blasters would be overreaching, and I don't think that will happen. ... Sometimes common sense just takes a little bit of time to reveal itself."

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