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Where Foolish Meets Phobia: A Finger-Gun Update

Monday, October 2, 2023

Where Foolish Meets Phobia: A Finger-Gun Update

Finger guns, the lethal weapons of choice for absolutely no one, are in the news again.

Every so often we write about over-the-top reactions to harmless things or actions with some nebulous but apparently nefarious gun-related nexus, like the by-now notorious case of the seven-year-old second-grader suspended for chewing a breakfast pastry into the shape of a gun. A school official admitted that while a student “used food to make inappropriate gestures that disrupted the class,” there were no “physical threats” made and no one was harmed. In another  case, a ten-year-old boy was suspended from elementary school after “making his fingers look like a gun, having the thumb up and the pointed finger sticking out,” which the suspension letter called a “level 2 look alike firearm.” Here, too, no one was hurt or scared or threatened and, most obviously, no firearm was involved.

Early this month, a six-year-old Alabama boy was reportedly suspended from elementary school for making a “finger gun gesture” with “bang, bang” sound effects during a recess game of cops and robbers. His “gun fingers” came to the attention of school authorities, who instituted disciplinary proceedings. The boy’s father alleges that school staff “interrogated” the child, and made him “confess and then sign his name” to a “Class III infraction” form.

According to a news report, the suspension notice specified the child committed a “3.22 Threat,” which the school’s handbook classifies as a “threat/intimidation of student.” Examples of 3.22 violations listed in the handbook include “a threat to kill, maim, or inflict serious harm; a threat to inflict harm involving the use of any weapon, explosive, firearm, knife, prohibited object, or other object which may be perceived by the individual being threatened as capable of inflicting bodily harm;” Class III infractions more generally include serious crimes like arson, assault bomb threats, burglary, and sexual battery. The father notes that actually punching or hitting a student would have been a lesser Class II infraction, “so in the eyes of these school administrators, a finger gun is more serious than punching a classmate in the nose.”

An attorney representing the family confirms that the recess game “did not threaten any other students, did not disrupt any class activities, and did not interfere with school functions in any way.” And while the school has since “downgraded” the violation to a slightly less ludicrous “Class II Infraction,” the parents are seeking to have the disciplinary action removed from their child’s school record and to have the school refrain from punishing students for “age and context appropriate playtime activities which cause no substantial disruption, contain no actual, implied, or perceived threat, and pose no danger to anyone,” regardless of whether the staff have their own issues with “gun finger” play.

Unfortunately, this sort of foolish overreaction isn’t limited to children’s playgrounds.

Last week, the National Football League (NFL) levied fines of $13,659 each against two Cleveland Browns players, quarterback Deshaun Watson and tight end David Njoku, for a “violent gesture” that occurred in a September 25 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Video of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it exchange between the two teammates was captured in a tweet and apparently shows the two pretending to fire guns after a touchdown, “during what appeared to be their own signature handshake.”

Watson was also fined for twice grabbing the facemask of an opponent in the same game – and although that involved actual physical contact (“unnecessary roughness”), the fines for those transgressions were lesser than for the use of his “gun fingers.” Even more interestingly, the NFL reportedly opted not to penalize Watson for “shoving an official” during that game, a move that the NFL Rulebook cites as warranting a disqualification. Two adult teammates sharing an innocuous joke on the field, though, is somehow more problematic.

One has to wonder which of these (if any) is the real “violent gesture,” especially in the context of the target-rich environment an intrinsically physical and potentially dangerous sport presents. A former player, now a CNN sports anchor/correspondent writes about his time in the NFL that “football is a violent game – and always has been.” Another commentator, as succinctly, states that “the physicality and the violence is part of what makes football, well, football.”

These unequivocally harmless gestures attract some strangely disproportionate consequences, considering we have yet to read about any gun finger-related fatalities. Watson’s and Njoku’s one-second interaction will cost them a total of $27,318. The parents in the breakfast pastry incident spent three-and-a-half years and untold dollars litigating the matter of their child’s disciplinary record (which uses the word “gun” four times) before reaching a settlement with the school. The Alabama case is already being handled through an attorney. Other children who have their finger-gun incidents result in official discipline face being unfairly labeled as violent or dangerous as they progress through the educational system.

What next? Charging pet owners who train their animals to fake keeling over (here, here, and here) when a finger gun is “fired,” with animal abuse and cruelty?  

What is truly alarming about these incidents isn’t just the anti-gun bigotry that seems to be in play, but the inability of responsible professionals to distinguish a genuine threat or violence from what clearly isn’t – when even children and pets understand the difference between real and make-believe.

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