There was a clomping sound on the stairs the other day, and a moment later, two imposing figures stepped into the kitchen.
"Check it out!" one of them announced. "We're going to the woods to shoot bad guys!"
I stopped what I was doing and gaped at them. The boys were bristling with nonlethal weapons -- rifles and pistols that shoot plastic pellets. One of them had a scary looking plastic knife stuck through his belt and wore aviator sunglasses. The other wisely wore protective goggles, on account of those pellets.
Not only did the boys look like members of a SWAT team, but also one of them, the visiting boy, even had SWAT printed on his black vest. Only a few years earlier, they probably would have added masks and capes. They were dressed up like their heroes.
But the world would not see them that way, I knew. If it ever did, the world no longer looks at teenage boys with weapons as chivalry in prototype, or as future soldiers or SWAT guys or police officers. Instead, the world sees Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.
"Guys, you look great but ... it's not a good idea. You are going to scare people. Especially after --"
I didn't want to say "after Aurora." I wasn't sure the boys even knew what had happened in that theater in Colorado only a few hours earlier.
In their armored state, they resembled not the orange-haired mass murderer, but the good guys who had swept in to put a stop to his rampage. Yet, I could not expect anyone else to make that distinction. Neighbors getting a glimpse of apparently armed youths were liable to get an awful, upsetting scare, and I didn't like to think about what kind of trouble might come from it.
"Please? We just want to run around in our gear and dodge behind trees and stuff!"
"I'm sorry," I told them, and I was. They tromped upstairs, griping good-naturedly. Soon, they were back with bows and arrows for archery practice in the backyard.
In the aftermath of yet another massacre, this one allegedly perpetrated by James Holmes -- it seems ridiculous to say "allegedly," but I suppose I must -- there has been a lot of familiar talk back and forth about gun control, and about mental health and about making a point of remembering the lives of victims as least as distinctly as we study the minds of their killers.
It is right and just to have these discussions. Yet, as we ponder the motives and actions of mass murderers, it really is important to remember what outliers they are. That they tend to be young and male should not indict other young males.
People seldom have trouble with this concept when talking about race or religion (or at least prefer to pretend they don't), but when a young man with a gun hurts people, it reinforces a kind of generalized social alarm about teenage boys that is grossly unfair to most of them.
As many a mother has discovered, little boys denied toy weapons will cheerfully use their imaginations to convert other things into them (I myself was once stabbed in the leg with a banana by the swashbuckling son of a militantly pacifist friend). It's part of what boys are, and ought to be respected and channeled healthily rather than treated as pathology.
"The target has surrendered!" the boys announced, clomping back inside. They waved a tattered paper bull's-eye.
They grinned at each other. "We're thinking of going down to the river with my harpoon."
My face must have shown my unease. Would a harpoon from a diving trip scare the neighbors? Who knew?
"Don't worry," my son said soothingly. "We're not going to hurt anything. We'll leave the pointy part here."
Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.