WITH children in the United States being killed by real guns at a rate of a dozen a day, the announcement last week that Toys `R' Us will take toy guns off its shelves might seem no more than a sympathetic or symbolic act.
But the move by the nation's largest toy retailer actually will aid in the fight against crime and save lives.
Adults frequently use the toy weapons, which can be made to look eerily like the real thing, while committing crimes. Few victims want to stake their lives on being able to tell the difference.
Even more tragically, children who brandish the fake firearms are being shot and killed by police, who think they are being confronted by an armed suspect and must make a split-second decision whether to shoot. The most recent example occurred last month in Brooklyn, N.Y., where a 13-year-old boy carrying a toy gun was killed by police.
Although the imitation guns are supposed to have capped barrels and wild neon colors that make them clearly identifiable as playthings, adult criminals and some children modify and paint them to make the toys look ``real.'' In some tough neighborhoods, carrying a faux assault rifle gives a child a sense of power and safety.
Many large retailers - including Sears, Kmart, and Target - stopped selling toy guns several years ago. And Kay-Bee Stores, a New England retail toy chain, has also said it will pull toy guns from its shelves.
The philosophical debate over whether children should play with toy guns has gone on for years. Many adults feel that they managed to get through childhood playing with fake firearms (remember when every boy had to have a ``Fanner 50'' cap pistol?) without becoming violent, gun-toting criminals later in life.
But today, especially in cities bristling with real guns, playing with the toys can be a deadly game. Retailers who take the look-alikes off their shelves are being good corporate citizens and good neighbors.
With Christmas but two months away, action figures or Barbie dolls (accessories sold separately!) being hawked on TV seem positively benign in comparison.
This season, perhaps, parents will put games, books, or maybe a computer under the tree - and say no to the culture of guns, even make-believe ones.