Twelve, seven and five-year-olds Habib, Hasan and Asghar hold toy guns in their hands like a sport. These are the favored Eid gift for kids their age in Lyari. Harmless looking and plastic, in a range of colors; toy guns have always been popular in Karachi—especially crime-infested areas like Lyari and Sohrab Goth. But the market has recently received a boost with the launch of the Osama bin Laden gun during this year’s Eid season.
One shop owner in Lyari told The Diplomat, “This Eid I sold triple the number of toy guns since the introduction of the Osama bin Laden gun. Even when my stockpile of Osama guns was sold out, I still managed to sell all of my other guns because I think the demand has risen exponentially. The kids simply love it.”
The three young boys were not quite content when they did not get the Osama gun, but they eventually accepted their stand-ins.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Lyari is a hotbed of crime, clashes and murder in Karachi. Most residents living in the area are by default associated with crime, and most children growing up there are exposed to prodigious violence. “Toy guns in a locality where the children are exposed to so much violence may open the possibility of them getting more readily involved in crime,” Samia Naz, a school principle in Lyari, told The Diplomat. “We announced in our school this month that no students would be allowed to bring toy guns to the annual Eid party and also discouraged parents from buying such harmful toys for their children.”
Toy guns nonetheless remain unexceptional and popular in Lyari. It could be the rise in sales that forces some parents to shrug off the possible negative psychological effect such toys may have on the minds of their children. “Well, I don’t think it’s harmful because all the kids in the neighborhood play with these and they all know it’s just for play,” says Waffaq Khan, a resident of Lyari. Naz, however, considers this a “dangerous attitude and the cause for rising teenage violence in Lyari.”
Dr. Tara Arsalan, a child psychologist, told The Diplomat that the guns, even though apparently harmless toys, can make violence more appealing to a child. According to a study she conducted while working towards her doctorate, about 45 percent of children who play with toy guns grow up to become violent and intolerant adults. She added: “There is a lot of contrasting debate on the links between toy guns and violence across the world, especially in the U.S. But we need to understand that violence perpetuates violence. Impressions developed in childhood will create acceptance of an environment when these children grow.”
Mockups of Kalashnikovs, pistols and machine guns, accurate down to the mechanics of loading and firing, are increasingly popular among children in Karachi. Some shopkeepers involved in the city's toy weapon trade estimated an overall business of $2 million annually. Toy gun sales during the past few Eid seasons totaled millions of rupees, said Iqbal Jamil, secretary-general for the National Social Forum (NSF), an anti-weapon organization.
Negligent parental attitudes and lack of social consideration to protect children from possibly harmful toys have dismayed some activists. A recent upsurge in sales has forced them to come forward and protest replica weapons from being sold across the country. Anti-toy gun activists have launched a campaign “to protect children from harmful toys,” with one of their goals being “to ban the fashion of toy guns.” When it comes to toy guns that actually shoot projectiles, activist Muhammad Arshad Khan told The Diplomat: "If you are buying the gun, you are training five-year-olds to put a bullet in the chamber and fire shots. After using the toy gun, a child can easily use a real one." Activists like Arshad are aiming to get imitation Kalashnikovs and Glocks off the streets, saying they help breed a culture of violence among children.
Incidents of children being injured by toy guns that shoot projectiles are common in Lyari, according to Dr. Jamil Shah, who has medically treated such victims in Karachi.
In response to these myriad dangers, Karachi-based anti-gun NGO Ranaa Development Trust (RDT) has called for a nationwide ban on the sale of toy guns. RDT members and volunteers have been campaigning with banners, pamphlets and public engagements, asking people, especially parents, to stop buying toy guns for their children.
Other NGOs, poets, singers, and peace activists are trying to fight the troubling toy gun trend by staging marches, petitioning the authorities, and talking to parents and shopkeepers in the hopes that they minimize interest in toy weapons, which sell heavily during religious and national festivals such Eid al-Fitr and Independence Day.
Other activists are seeking to weed out the problem at its root—before the toy guns arrive in Pakistan. Amjad Shahzad, an activist who led a campaign to stop sales of toy guns in Malakand, Swat, plans to hold protests in front of the national parliament and send letters to the Chinese Embassy in the hope that Beijing will restrict the export of toy guns to Pakistan.
Kiran Nazish is a Pakistani-based columnist for The Pulse and a correspondent for LaStampa. Follow her on twitter @kirannazish.