Weird History

Outrage Over Toy Guns Isn't New - It's Been Around As Long As The Toys Have 

Molly Weinfurter
March 11, 2020 1.2k views 12 items

Kids love the thrill of playing with a fake gun and pretending to shoot people. For them, it's just an exciting game, but for many adults, it raises an ongoing debate about whether these toys should exist at all. There are strong points to both sides of the dispute, but it's nothing new: There have been debates about toy guns ever since they were first created. 

Worries about the toys' realism first arose when news stories surfaced about early models. Police officers would see a kid with a toy and instantly mistake it for a real gun. Without time to look closely at the weapon, they would err on the side of caution and fire. Many were injured and even killed in such situations. Others would pretend a toy gun was real just to spread panic.

New laws have sought to make the toys look less realistic, but the problems never go away completely. The controversy keeps coming back, taking new, slightly different forms as the decades go by.

Legal Statutes In The 1880s Struggled To Differentiate The Earliest Toy Guns From Real Ones

Laws centered around toy guns were constantly changing throughout the years, particularly around the 1880s. This is because it was often difficult to tell the difference between a real gun and an imitation one. Even in legal statutes, the way toy guns were defined made it unclear whether the law was describing a toy or a real weapon.

Ohio law defined toy guns as “pistol[s] manufactured out of any metallic or hard substance.”

Pennsylvania described them as “arranged as to be capable of being loaded with gunpowder or other explosive substance, cartridges, shot, slugs or balls and being exploded, fired off and discharged.”

The ambiguous definitions indicate that many states had a hard time defining and differentiating between the two types of guns. The toy guns mentioned in these laws were likely much more detailed and true to life than some of the plastic replicas today, but it still shouldn't have been that hard to clearly define a fake gun.

As Long As There Have Been Toy Guns, They Have Caused Accidental Shootings

Since it's often difficult to tell the difference between real and toy guns, many people have been injured and even lost their lives as a result of the confusion. Even in later years, when orange safety tips were mandated, it was hard to see them with just a quick glance, especially if the toy was in someone's pocket.

Many children have been shot simply because they looked like they were holding a real gun at first glance. Newspapers have reported instances of people perishing because of toy guns for as long as these toys have existed. Not just kids, but also teens and adults have been shot because they were handling a fake gun that someone mistook for a real weapon. 

"In 2000, budding actor Anthony Dwain Lee (who had roles in 'Liar, Liar' and 'ER') was shot while holding a rubber toy gun by an LAPD officer at a Beverly Hills, Calif., Halloween party," wrote Matt Bean in a 2003 article. "In January 1997, a 26-year-old Long Island woman was shot and killed by an officer who mistook a toy gun she carried for a real one."

In The Early '30s, Hollywood And Comic Strip Tie-Ins Caused Certain Toys To Rise In Popularity

In the early 1930s, comics became popular and easily accessible, even to children. They came in cheap booklets that kids could afford even without their parents' permission. When publishers realized this, they started to target the content directly toward kids. This is how certain toys were easily advertised to children.

Gangster films and Lone Ranger movies were some of the Hollywood films that helped toy guns rise in popularity. In the '30s, gangster guns became the most popular. In the '40s, cap guns became the new craze thanks to The Lone Ranger. Then, when science fiction movies were the most popular, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon-style ray guns were the rage.

Toy Sales Would Rise After Wartime, But Peaked In Popularity During The Cold War

During wartime, war-themed toys greatly increased in popularity. At such times, the idea of armed conflict was normal to kids; their awareness was reflected in their play habits.

Early toy guns were even manufactured specifically to look like their real-life counterparts. For a while, many toy guns were even made by the same companies that manufactured the real thing -- such as the WWII Tommy gun. There's a certain logic to it: Who better to manufacture a convincing facsimile than the maker of the genuine article?

The early Cold War era was the time in which toy guns gained the most popularity, and the cap gun mechanism peaked in popularity during the 20 years after WWII. Millions of cap guns were manufactured, including multiple different versions. Toy guns continue to be popular today, but to some extent, they have been eclipsed by other types of toy, from action figures to video games.