Caps Lock: Would a toy gun buyback program work in D.C.?
Caps Lock: Would a toy gun buyback program work in D.C.? Credit: Photo by Darrow Montgomery

Anybody who wants a real gun should soon be able to buy one legally in D.C. But only outlaws will buy toy guns.

OK, OK, OK. That’s not literally true. But a recent fruitless family search for a cheap squirt gun of the sort I played with as a kid got me thinking we’re headed in that direction. My wife visited a CVS, a Walgreens, and Sullivan’s Toy Store on her quest.

The shelves of all three retailers were stocked with plenty of pricey Super Soakers, squirters that are shaped and sized like spaceships, able to irrigate a cornfield in a single round.

But none of the stores sold any toy remotely the size and shape of an actual gun. Asked about the drought of standard squirt guns, a staffer at Sullivan’s, which makes everybody’s list of the best toy sellers in the city, said the store doesn’t offer such items.

This dearth of toy guns intrigued me because the status of real-gun sales in D.C. has been so in flux lately. Almost all firearm sales have been banned in town for most of my lifetime. But the legal tide against gun availability has turned.

Alan Gura, a Northern Virginia–based attorney specializing in constitutional law, is as responsible as anybody for the turnabout. Gura served as lead counsel for the winning side in District of Columbia v. Heller. In that case, Gura successfully argued before the Supreme Court that key portions of the Firearms Control Regulations Act of 1975, the law that effectively outlawed civilian gun ownership in the city, violated the Second Amendment.

The decision is being hailed as a weapons equivalent of Roe v. Wade. The impact has been minimal thus far, since there’s only one licensed gun dealer in town (who will be operating out of the Metropolitan Police Department headquarters after losing the lease on his shop). But Gura believes that will change.

“It’s just a matter of time before people will be buying guns in D.C., absolutely,” he says. “It’s a matter of how much taxpayers’ money the D.C. government wants to waste fighting this. They need to accept the fact that this is a part of life in America: People have the right to buy handguns.”

But while the retailing of real weapons appears imminent, the sale of toy guns looks to be on the way out. The short supply of squirt guns at local drugstores is no fluke. And it’s not just squirt guns that are harder to find than they once were: Cap guns, another childhood staple for my generation, ain’t readily available anymore, either.

Turns out that a war on toy guns has been waged for some time, and across the globe. The domestic assault on fake firearms began in 1988, when Congress passed the Federal Energy Management Improvement Act. Section 4 of that measure—enacted after a series of incidents in which toy guns were used in crimes or caused police to shoot real bullets into folks armed only with harmless fakes—mandated that all “toy guns, water guns, replica nonguns, and air-soft guns firing nonmetallic projectiles” sold in the United States must have either a “blaze orange” plug attached to the faux muzzle, be made of “transparent” materials, or be colored “white, bright red, bright orange, bright yellow, bright green, bright blue, bright pink, or bright purple.” The only major exception was for toys that would be “used only in the theatrical, movie or television industries.” (The best Christmas present I ever got, a silver cap gun, would rate a spot on the federal shit list—unless my backyard cowboys-versus-Indians battles qualified as suitably dramatic.)

Lots of states and municipalities have gotten tougher on toys over the years. New York authorities have been the most aggressive proponents of fake-gun control. The state has fined a group of retailers, including CVS and Walgreen’s, more than $1 million thus far for selling toy guns that didn’t look fake enough. To settle a beef with Empire State regulators in 2003, Walmart paid the state $200,000 and agreed to stop selling any toy resembling a real gun.

Regulators have been spending money, as well as taking it in, in the effort to rid the streets of toy guns. In 1999, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development gave the city of Gary, Ind., a $7,150 grant to run a toy-gun-buyback program. Really. And a year later, Annapolis, Md., alderman Cynthia Carter tacked on a buyback program for squirt guns to the city’s existing buyback programs for real firearms. Kids got $1 or $2 per toy gun in Carter’s program. In 2003, Carter tried to implement a comprehensive ban on the outdoor use of toy guns in Maryland’s capital city. In 2007, Cleveland city council members started their own toy-gun-buyback program, in which every squirt gun netted its giver-upper a McDonald’s gift certificate. The police in Providence, R.I., have had a toy-gun-buyback program in place for seven years. A Boston Globe story in December about Providence’s most recent buyback event said police gave kids “dolls, stuffed animals and board games like checkers” if they turned in their squirt and cap guns.

A Seattle TV station, KING 5, reported earlier this year that it had uncovered an internal memo from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives instructing agents to confiscate certain realistic-looking toy guns at the border and classify them as firearms. Last year, when Ciudad Juárez, Mexico’s murder rate hit seven per day, city officials introduced a toy-gun-buyback program.

And around the New Year, the Iraq Ministry of Health moved to ban the sale of all toy guns. A spate of eye injuries was initially given as the reason behind the ban, but officials later indicated that their real motivation was a desire to get violent symbols off the street: “It’s the responsibility of the community to get rid of these toys,” Emad Abdulrazaq, Iraq’s national adviser for mental health at the ministry, told the New York Times. “They make it easier for a child to make the next step to real violence.”

The mood against toy guns is such that some retailers promote their policy of not offering the playthings. The Target website, for example, has a page labeled “product safety” on which consumers are told that the commerce giant “stopped selling realistic toy guns in the early 1990s.”

But if there’s still a will to get a cap or squirt gun, there’s still a way, too: The demise of toy-gun sales at traditional retail outlets has led to the establishment of an online industry. California-based is among the Web-based firms now trying to fulfill consumer demand left unsatisfied as a result of the increased regulation and fear of faux firearms.

A staffer who asked to be identified only as “Mark” says business is booming.

“The media’s perception is that toy guns create violence,” he says. “That perception just made the guns become regulated more and more, and major department stores, a lot of stores, just stopped carrying them. That’s good for us.”

But not good for anybody looking for a quick toy acquisition. I tell Gura about my recent squirt-gun-locating problem. I couldn’t convince him that the right to bear toy arms is a constitutional issue. But he does suggest a solution.

“Get one of those garden spray bottles,” he says. “They’re good squirt guns.”

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