Moral Panic

Don't Narc on Kids' Nerf Guns Unless You Want Potentially Tragic Confrontations

America may be safer than ever, but residents of the Land of the Free seem set on raising their children in a climate of fear.


Last week, police in and around Phoenix, Arizona, questioned a teenager and his parents and searched their home and the kid's school after the teen posted to a group chat a jokey message that raised concerns in our see-something-say-something age. In the message, the kid referred to going to school the next day posted alongside a photo of a Nerf gun. Police got involved because one of the other chat participants narced on the exchange and set the wheels of officialdom in motion.

The incident stands as a reminder that some of the bigger dangers we face today lie in fearful friends, relatives, and neighbors who insist that authorities be forever poised to protect them from unlikely threats. As red flag laws and other reporting systems proliferate around the country, we're likely to see even more incidents in which cops—eagerly or reluctantly—are dragged into innocuous situations by people who refuse to ask simple questions or to believe that we're living in a remarkably safe age.

To their credit, in the Phoenix incident, school officials proactively assured parents that the incident was "not a credible threat" and police were clear to me that the photo was very much of a toy Nerf gun. Officials wouldn't speak further because of an "active investigation"—modern shorthand for "this is too embarrassing to put on the record." But participants in the group chat shared the contents of the message with me amidst much eye-rolling on their parts. They were thoroughly ticked that one of their own had turned the conversation into a police incident.

Justine and Nathan Myers were similar victims of a just-in-case—or maybe malicious—report to authorities after 16-year-old Nathan documented a shooting outing with his mother on Snapchat. As Jay Stooksberry reported for Reason earlier this month, somebody contacted Colorado's Safe2Tell, a system that lets people "anonymously report anything that concerns or threatens you, your friends, your family or your community," about the Myers' shooting trip. Police quickly determined that the two were no threat, but Nathan was banned from school until public outrage forced officials to reverse their decision.

Systems like Safe2Tell, but more specifically targeted at firearm owners, now proliferate around the country as "red flag laws." They allow people with various degrees of connection to gun owners—sometimes very little at all—to petition courts to confiscate firearms with little in the way of due process. Such laws render the accused "guilty until proven innocent," argues Sheriff James van Beek of Eagle County, Colorado, one of more than half the sheriffs in his state who oppose Colorado's version of the law.

New Jersey's red flag law is the newest of the bunch. It went into effect on September 1 despite warnings that it could be wielded as a weapon by "vindictive people" and "law enforcement that don't believe you should have a firearm." New as the law is, it has been applied at least once each day since.

Now the FBI is soliciting proposals for a "social media alerting" tool that would comb through people's online posts to "proactively identify and reactively monitor threats" for official intervention. Once implemented, Reason's Andrea O'Sullivan cautions, "the FBI apparently expects these programs to quickly and accurately separate meme from menace."

Honestly, red flag laws and similar due process-free reporting systems look an awful lot like swatting implemented as formal policy. Swatting—maliciously targeting innocent people for emergency services responses—has proven to be lethal in some cases. Unsurprisingly, individuals have also been killed when police went to homes to enforce gun confiscation orders issued under very dubious procedures. In fact, Safe2Tell admits that, of the tips it receives, some 2.4 percent "were believed to be intentionally false reports."

Formalized swatting—red flag laws, Safe2Tell, and other see-something-say-something travesties—come courtesy of public fears of horrendous mass shootings. But those fears are wildly overblown. Even after the recent lethal attacks in El Paso and Dayton committed by murderous extremists, such incidents remain thankfully rare. It's not entirely clear that they're even increasing in frequency—especially with regard to schools.

The numbers we do have are too small to suggest any conclusions, says Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox. "There is no evidence that we are in the midst of an epidemic of mass shootings," Fox told Reason last month.

More specifically, "mass school shootings are incredibly rare events," Fox and other Northeastern University researchers pointed out in 2018 with regard to specific fears about the supposed dangers faced by children in classrooms. "Shooting incidents involving students have been declining since the 1990s."

The roots of confusion over mass-shooting frequency lie in the rarity of such events, the definition of "mass shooting," and the resulting challenges for anybody who wants to extrapolate a trend. But mass murders by any definition and in any frequency are horrific and grab headlines, unlike data indicating the remarkable safety in which our kids live their lives.

This is unfortunate, because crime rates have plummeted since the early 1990s. "The two most commonly cited sources of crime statistics in the U.S. both show a substantial decline in the violent crime rate since it peaked in the early 1990s," Pew Research noted earlier this year. "Using the FBI numbers, the violent crime rate fell 49% between 1993 and 2017. Using the BJS data, the rate fell 74% during that span."

As for schools, "From 1992 to 2017, the total victimization rate and rates of specific crimes—thefts, violent victimizations, and serious violent victimizations—declined for students ages 12–18, both at school and away from school," the National Center for Education Statistics notes in its latest report on the subject. "The serious violent victimization rates reported in 2017 were 4 victimizations per 1,000 students at school and 6 victimizations per 1,000 students away from school."

And how have we responded to this world of remarkable safety? Schools all too often implement "active shooter drills" that have a real potential for inflicting psychological harm by raising children's anxiety levels during simulations of unlikely scenarios. They're just part of a pervasive atmosphere of threat and fear that convinces people that images of toy guns could be omens of crimes to come and should be reported for official intervention—intervention that is always disruptive, and occasionally deadly.

My son has been taught to call the police only in incidents where it's OK if the subjects of the call end up dead. He knows that law enforcement is a blunt instrument subject to few restraints. That means it should be invoked only when there is a real threat. Nerf guns, jokes, innocent shooting expeditions, and other unfounded fears don't make the cut by that standard.

If only that standard were more commonly accepted. All Americans would do well to take a deep breath, remember that they live in a world that has become safer in recent decades, and cut each other some slack accordingly.

NEXT: Brett Kavanaugh Faces a New Accusation in The New York Times, but the Alleged Victim Didn't Confirm It

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  1. Neighbors ratting out each out is an important part of an authoritarian society.

  2. Perfect for those who see Madame Defarge as a role model.

  3. One of the problems that the shooting range pictures showcases well is a more generalized version of Gresham’s Law: Bad people drive out Good people.

    More specifically, gun grabbers and Progressives in general readily stoop to generating fake outrages like this all the time. It is their modus operandi. It is what they live for. Honest people have far better things to do with their lives and too much decency to lie like this.

    One obvious solution is for honest people to turn the tables and generate a zillion false reports on Progressives. Not just to give them a taste of their own medicine, but more to showcase how wrong the laws are, how easily they are distorted beyond original intent, and how they need to be cleaned up and narrowed down, if not repealed altogether. But not-Progressives just don’t have the stomach to harass other people and lie like that.

    1. I think this is right. I think there’s another somewhat unrelated element, too. Progressives seem not only skilled at infiltrating organizations and governments, but to actually enjoy it. It seems they are very much at home in bureaucratic machinations, while their opponents generally find that boring or distasteful. So most organizations end up succumbing to this, because the rest of us are busy trying to do things we perceive as useful.

    2. +1000. The only problem is that progressives already live in the gutter, so you can’t really start spreading false stories about them because they either don’t care or their media shills will find a way to turn them into favorable stories

    3. “One obvious solution is for honest people to turn the tables and generate a zillion false reports on Progressives. ”

      You’re not a practical person, I see, An obvious solution: have the police ignore reports submitted by bad people, dishonest people, and those who don’t vote Republican.

      1. “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right…to be confronted with the witnesses against him.”

        They could ignore reports submitted by anonymous people. If you can’t personally take responsibility for even the *claims* of criminal intent or activity, you shouldn’t be making them.

        Between lawyers and the media, it should be dead simple to find a proxy to yell fire in crowded theater for you.

  4. They were thoroughly ticked that one of their own had turned the conversation into a police incident.

    I can guarantee you that “one of their own” got a heady rush of self-righteous and self-important smug superiority in becoming an informant for the state. The problem is that the momentary thrill of being Somebody Important doesn’t last long and they’ll be craving another fix soon enough. These are the people who patrol the neighborhood with a memorized list of petty infractions they can report – a lawn a half-inch too long, a garbage can a foot too close to the curb or a car a foot too close to the fire hydrant – because their sad little lives are so depressing that they’ll use any means necessary to feel their lives have some importance.

    1. “Of all the tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under the omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber barons cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
      CS Lewis

  5. The Constitution does not give you the right to open carry Nerf products.

    1. It’s just nerf’n off.

  6. “In the message, the kid referred to going to school the next day posted…”

    Right, wrong, or indifferent, he screwed up, right there. When will fools learn that anything on social media is just asking for it?

  7. New Jersey’s red flag law … went into effect on September 1 despite warnings that it could be wielded as a weapon by “vindictive people” and … it has been applied at least once each day since.

    “Hello, is this the Red Flag Office? Yes, I’d like to report a potential terrorist who is, as we speak, *in your building*.”

    1. New Jersey’s red flag law … went into effect on September 1 despite warnings that it could be wielded as a weapon by “vindictive people”

      Feature, not a bug.

  8. Reason number 1000 why I’m not on any social media.

    1. Except the Reason commentariat?

      1. I do not believe this counts as social media. Everyone here is anonymous, and if Preet Bharara couldn’t learn the identities of the infamous wood chippers, we are hopefully safe from red flag laws.

        1. I wouldn’t count on it. If anything this site is likely more subject to the data collecting spooks at NSA and who knows elsewhere. They can find you unless you are using some sophisticated encryption multiple VPN stuff and even then.

        2. I still get a chuckle every time I remember that one.

    2. If you don’t want to be treated like a thug, don’t post your nerf on social media like a thug.

  9. America is the “Land of the Free?’
    America has never been a free country.

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