Bang, bang - toy guns aren't dead

Why do parents spend pounds 9m a year on imitation firearms, despite Dunblane? Graham Ball reports
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The Independent Online
It was a small act, but perhaps a very significant one. At 5.15pm on Friday afternoon - 24 hours after the Cullen report and the Government's tough response to it signalled an inevitable decline for the gun culture in Britain - staff in the toy department of Selfridges cleared a rack.

Supervised by Paddy Shannahan, the woman whose job it is to watch over the image of the venerable department store in London's Oxford Street, they removed from public display a small arsenal of realistic imitation handguns. "We are extremely sensitive," she said, "to the issues these toys raise."

This sensitivity is new. The particular awfulness of the Dunblane massacre, which has swayed Parliament across party lines and prompted the Government to bring in firearms restrictions in excess of Lord Cullen's own recommendations, has finally penetrated to the business of toy guns.

For in most of Britain's toyshops, despite earlier mass killings such as those in Hungerford in 1987, the gun culture still thrives. This year, by the time Christmas is past, parents will probably have spent between pounds 8m and pounds 9m on buying their children toys which are imitations of lethal weapons.

Impressionable minds are being exposed to a confused series of messages and imperatives. An Independent on Sunday survey of major toy retailers in London revealed that all the main West End stores were still happy to sell different forms of toy guns, despite the bitter legacy of Dunblane.

At Selfridges, where they are preparing to welcome Santa to the grotto you could until Friday evening buy a chillingly realistic automatic for pounds 5.99. The gun is part of a range made by the Spanish firm Gohner, which includes plausible copies of a variety of different weapons. Selfridges has now cleared its rack. Others haven't.

In Debenhams' West End flagship store, they feature the full Action Man selection of firearm accessories, including the pounds 22 Survival Kit Set - a black plastic briefcase with three child-size handguns inside.

At the John Lewis store in Oxford Street they sell a German-made cap gun modelled on the Colt revolver, called the Lone Star Stampede, at pounds 3.95.

In Hamley's in Regent Street, the world's most famous toy shop, you can buy a look-alike revolver in the Super Mex 500 Target Set at pounds 9.99. They also supply a variety of sci-fi and hi-tech hand-held weaponry including the Pulsating Flash Fazer at pounds 10.99.

Britain's biggest toy retailer, Toys 'R' Us, features in some stores a 12ft long section devoted to toy weapons. It includes the 1883 West Target Set at pounds 7.99 and the Sonic 3 automatic at pounds 9.99.

John Salisbury, a toy industry analyst, believes that the toy trade should be part of the current debate into the morality of guns in society and culture. "The toy industry tends to reflect what is happening in society at large. I think it is true to say that ever since the Hungerford massacre the sale of toy guns has been diminishing.

"But to my mind it will not completely disappear until parents stop buying for their children, and until the entertainment media ceases to be infatuated with firearms. This Christmas I predict football-based toys to be the best sellers. Football is hotter than violence in retail terms."

Defenders of the fantasy arms trade point out that not every little boy who plays "shoot-em-up" goes on to commit murder. "In my opinion banning toy guns would only serve to make them more alluring," says John Masters of British Association of Toy Retailers.

"Traders respond to public demand. When there is no longer a demand they will not be offered for sale. I would expect there to be a sharper decline in sales this year as some parents respond to the tragic events in Dunblane."

Most retailers are implacable in their resolve to carry on their business- as-usual ethos despite the clear shift in public attitudes to guns.

Collectively, they adhere to a voluntary code of practice agreed with the toy gun manufacturers that draws a distinction between "look-alikes" which resemble actual weapons, and "toys" which are made to an unrealistic scale, and coloured in lurid tints.

A spokeswoman for Hamleys, Ms Eva Saltman, the marketing director, said: "The day after Dunblane we ordered all toys guns to be taken off our shelves."

She argued that the toy weapons still on sale were not intended to look like actual guns, and that they had no intention of changing their policy further. She stressed that Hamley's did not sell look-alike weapons - notwithstanding that the Super Mex 500 is obviously modelled on a real gun.

Evelyn Strouts of John Lewis said: "We are not intending to change anything at this time. If the public taste changes then it will be reflected in our buying policy." She also stressed that the store sold no look-alike guns, but could not comment on the fact that the Lone Star Stampede gun is made to resemble a real revolver.

Jim Brown, a divisional merchandise director for the 56-strong Toys 'R' Us chain, claimed that his stores had begun a review of their stocks ahead of the Cullen report.

"For a number of years now, we have had a strict policy of not purchasing any look-alike toy guns. We're looking at our stocks once more, and it is possible that some old discontinued lines are still passing through some branches. But basically anything that is black and intended to look like a real weapon will not find shelf room in any of our stores."

Amanda Bassett represents the 88 Debenham stores throughout Britain and points out that the only toy weapons stocked are part of the Action Man series. "Action Man is a very popular toy, and so far we have received no complaints from any members of the public. If we do we will take their views into very serious consideration. We are sensitive to public opinion and do not stock look-alike guns."

However, some experts maintain that the distinction made by the retailers between look-alike guns and toy guns is simply a figleaf to protect their money-making intentions. Bob Johnson, a psychiatrist from London's Charing Cross Hospital, claims that the toy traders' argument is misleading and insincere.

"It is quite simply preposterous," Dr Johnson said. "In my work I'm quite used to listening to individuals attempting to explain and justify irrationalities and I recognise the same process at work here. Let's make no mistake - if the toy has a trigger and a barrel, and you point it at other people to shoot, then it is a gun.

"Children learn constantly, and if you tell them that guns are useful tools and that they represent power and you can get your way by hurting people, there are bound to be consequences. If this is linked to images of violence constantly supplied by TV films and cartoons, then these can hardly be seen as neutral messages.

"However, what the Home Secretary has done is good. I would predict that within five to 10 years these so-called toys will carry health warnings, and that places for viewing violent movies will be separate in the same way that smoking areas are now.

"I don't want to ban anything, just make people aware".

Inside Story, page 17

Leading article, page 20