Iraq Moves to Ban Toy Guns




The Ministry of Health here is campaigning to ban the sale of guns in Iraq. Toy guns, that is.

Baghdad’s toy markets are stocked with plastic weapons in all prices and sizes: toy guns, tanks, knives, uniforms, even silencers. In a country where guns and military gear are heartbreakingly prevalent, basic training begins early.

“It’s the responsibility of the community to get rid of these toys,” said Dr. Emad Abdulrazaq, national adviser for mental health at the ministry. “They make it easier for a child to make the next step to real violence, because every day he enjoys guns.”

The ministry, which itself has no authority to regulate toy sales, has urged the government to ban all toy weapons. But for now it is concentrating on one: a cheap plastic air pistol highly popular among boys that fires plastic pellets and has been the source of hundreds, possibly thousands, of eye injuries.Dr. Kudair al-Tai, head of the technical department at Ibn al-Haytham Hospital, the country’s main eye hospital, is one of those waging the campaign.

On a recent morning, Dr. Tai examined the eye of a 5-year-old boy named Mustafa, searching for scratches or internal bleeding. In late November, during Id al-Adha, the Islamic Feast of Sacrifice, the boy was playing with his neighbors when one of them fired an air pistol, hitting him in the eye. The boy looked alright, but for seven days he cried and could not sleep. Finally, his father took him to the eye hospital, where Dr. Tai discovered a yellow plastic pellet the size of a small pea lodged between his eyeball and the surrounding socket. There was bleeding in the eye’s interior chamber and partial dislocation of the iris.

“He was lucky,” Dr. Tai said. Many children suffer much worse injuries from the pellets.

During the five-day celebration of Id al-Adha, when families give children money to buy toys, Dr. Tai said, he often sees several injuries from pellet guns a day, some severe enough to require surgery. This year he went on television to advise parents not to buy the guns.

“The problem is not with the parents who purchase these toys but with the merchants that import such kind of toys,” Dr. Tai said. Because the toys are popular, parents “cannot resist their children’s persistence,” he said. He said he had seen toy air pistols with a range of 50 yards.

Children here live amid the impact of real violence, both on the news and in their neighborhoods. During the height of sectarian violence in 2006 and 2007, bodies often remained on the streets for days before being collected. Few children have access to psychiatric care, which is deeply stigmatized. Iraqi families are often large, and the children share rooms with their parents, so they are not sheltered from adult television or conversation — both of which commonly refer to horrific violence, theatrical or real.

“We have our own horror scenes, we don’t need extra,” said a hospital ward matron, who asked not to be named because she was not authorized to talk to reporters. “It should all be banned, any fireworks. The other day I started shouting at neighborhood kids who were shooting at each other. But at least they shot at each other’s legs, so they wouldn’t hurt their eyes.”

At the markets on Karada Street, where pellet guns sold for $8 or less, merchants said toy guns were their most popular.“The culture of violence is dominant,” said one shop owner, Hussein Mohammed, who declines to sell pellet guns.

“Children are no longer interested in educational games,” he said at his store. “All they want to play with is the games that express power and violence.”Teachers said that living with so much violence in both their real and fantasy lives had made students quicker to fight and less patient with their studies.

Where students used to ask teachers to help resolve conflicts, now they rarely do so, said Instisar Mohammed, a primary school teacher in the Yarmouk neighborhood, where most residents are relatively well educated. “They resolve with their fists more easily,” she said. “They fight a lot more than they used to.” She added that “after 15 minutes in the classroom they do not pay attention anymore and start moving around, then fighting.”

A ban on toy weapons is unlikely because it would require action by a number of ministries, none of them responsible for public health. But the Trade Ministry is in talks with health experts about a ban on some imports, a ministry spokeswoman said.Mustafa, who was shot in the eye, said he no longer talked to the neighbors who shot him.“I don’t like them,” he said. When he grows up, he said, he wants to be an ophthalmologist.

His father, Raad Kharaibut, 62, said he had tried to persuade the neighbors not to allow their children to play with the guns, but to no avail. “I don’t bring home such things because I know they are harmful,” he said. “We’ve seen similar incidents. Guns are not nice and not civilized toys.”

Even without the toys, he said, his son would be growing up in a martial culture. “The child sees checkpoints, he sees the military stop traffic,” he said. “The soldier has the gear, he has the right to express his power. The boy wants to be like that.”

The larger danger, though, is that a childhood spent among guns, real and toy, will make children more likely to embrace any use of power, Dr. Abdulrazaq said. “In the short term, it makes them more hostile at home and in school,” he said. “They become more cruel. In the long term, it will encourage them to engage in more adventures with weapons. He will be more vulnerable to be recruited by police, criminals or terrorists.”

Real guns, he said, “will be an enjoyment, not a stress.”

But for many parents, the question of whether to have toy guns at home rests on more immediate considerations. “They like it,” said Saddam Abdulsalam, who buys toy guns for his six children, though one shot his brother in the eye.

Even his three daughters play with the guns. “This is the new generation,” he said. “They will grow out of it.”

By John Leland,
the New York Times

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