"Look, I've got a gun" declared my son the other day, waving a cardboard kitchen roll tube in my face. When he added "and I'm going to shoot you", the look on his face was more mischievous than 'mass murderer in the making'. But it still left me feeling uncomfortable and I gave him a bit of a talk about how it's not nice to shoot or kill people.
Given he's a six-year-old boy, some will find it odd that this was the very first occasion I'd seen him pretend to shoot someone or something. As a family we've always shied away from any sort of weaponry role play and certainly would not have dreamed of buying a toy gun (well, other than a water pistol which sneaked through the net – exempt from the ban as that's about squirting people with water, rather than feigning murdering them).
Instinctively, I don't like the idea of children's play involving the imaginary killing or maiming of others. My husband, meanwhile, is the kind of chap who carefully transports wasps out of the house, temporarily trapped in a mug, so he doesn't have to harm them (even though they wouldn't have any qualms about stinging him). So a child hurtling round the house shouting 'I'm going to kill you' with a pretend assault rifle doesn't exactly sit well with our family's way.
I'm not alone in my squeamishness about all this. Many schools have banned toy guns and some even admonish children for improvising 'weapons' with their fingers.
When I did a straw poll among my friends, plenty held similar views to mine. "I hate it [playing with toy guns]. I do not allow them. "The grandparents tell me I'm wrong, and that they grew up playing 'cowboys and Indians', but I point out that guns are no longer 'pretend' or just things you see in the movies." said one.
Another lives in Northern Ireland and explained "I don't let my kids play with guns because we live in a post-conflict society here and it just doesn't seem appropriate to encourage them to run around pretending to shoot each other."
Yet of those I asked there were one or two who clearly thought I belonged to that political- correctness-gone-mad camp. Suzanne, mother of one girl and one boy, was strident: "Whether they are Nerf guns or water guns or lasers, they're just boys' toys and anyone who says otherwise is just conforming to this prissy politically correct society we seem to live in. You'll be telling me it's wrong for girls to play with dolls next because it's sexist towards women." That was me told.
Another toy-gun tolerant mum said, "The kids know they're just playing – that it's not real."
Seeking a view from the older generation, I spoke to my dad, "Boys [he's a bit sexist my old man – girls would be off helping their mum make the dinner wearing a pinny, in his world] have always played with guns. What's the big deal? Your brothers [I have three] didn't turn into gun-toting mad men did they?"
I could see his point. And surely a bit of wafting a pretend pistol about whilst saying 'bang bang' is nothing compared to the alarmingly violent computer games teenagers seem to play these days.
Hoping to get to the bottom of which side of the toy gun debate is in the right, I spoke to a child psychologist, Dr. Amanda Gummer, who runs FUNdamentals, a consultancy specialising in play. But she too sat on the fence: "I don't think replica guns are a good thing but toy guns don't have to be bad if used responsibly and children are taught that they are a tool for soldiers to do a job. Much better to get those conversations happening and in the open than making boys who like playing fighting/guns feel like they're naughty."
"The flip side though is that it's often not the parents who would have that kind of conversation who buy their children guns. There needs to be a judgment as to whether the benefits for the majority of children of having guns and learning how they can be used responsibly outweigh the tacit approval of guns that comes from letting kids play with them. If you look at how fire is treated - potentially dangerous and not something that should be played with - you don't get children playing with toy matches.
I don't have a problem with toy guns per se but I think on balance its no bad thing that they're not common."
Wise words but I still wasn't clear about the answer to all this so I asked my son what he thinks of toy guns: "They're not sort of suitable are they?" he pronounced, I suspect echoing something he'd heard a teacher say at school. "But we just use our fingers to make them when we play anyway."
So, whether we parents like it or not, and no matter how much we screen the toys they have and what they see on TV, the fact is this type of play will probably seep into our children's lives.
I don't particularly approve of it, and I'm not about to go out and buy my son an arsenal of pretend weaponry, but running round the school playground shouting 'bang you're dead' probably won't lead into a life of gun crime. There is indeed something in that classic line that boys will be boys and we're fighting a losing battle trying to prevent it.
What do you think? Are toy guns harmless fun? Or do they trivialise a serious issue?
Liat Hughes Joshi is author of Raising Children: The Primary Years.