Dr. Farideh Kioumehr always made a point of keeping guns and other violent toys away from her two children.
Last year, though, after her 10-year-old son returned from a Disneyland party with a realistic-looking plastic rifle, Kioumehr vowed to find a way not only to keep what she views as dangerous playthings away from her children, but to change the way they--and other youths--view such objects.
An epidemiologist and president of the Sherman Oaks-based International Health and Epidemiology Research Center, Kioumehr studies public health trends and believes that aggressive toys feed America's fascination with violence and put young people at risk.
"Guns are for killing, toys are for playing," Kioumehr said. "The two shouldn't be mixed together."
To pursue her idea, Kioumehr founded the Anti-Violence Day Project, traveling around the Los Angeles area and speaking with children and their parents about the dangers of toy guns and other toy weapons.
At her events she asks the children to give up the toys and use them to create a piece of art or a billboard advertising the dangers of guns. In return, she awards the children a certificate and a T-shirt for their contribution to her campaign.
Kioumehr has hosted 12 anti-violence days in community centers around Los Angeles and Orange counties since starting her quest last year. The program targets elementary-age children and their parents, hoping to counteract the effects of television and movies and encourage parents to be careful about the kinds of toys they buy.
"The earlier we do the prevention, the better the result," she said.
Kioumehr's research has cataloged the effects of violence in the United States. Her research, along with studies by other organizations, found that the leading cause of injury or death for those under 18 is handgun violence.
The California Wellness Foundation reported that handgun violence is the leading cause of death for those 17 and under. More than 3,000 children are killed by handguns nationwide each year.
Toy guns carried by youngsters have led to close calls with police officers. Sometimes, these confrontations have turned fatal.
A tragic episode occurred in 1983 in the Orange County community of Stanton when a 5-year-old boy was fatally shot by a police officer after the child pointed a toy guy at him.
In December, a 10-year-old boy hiding in the bushes pointed a toy gun at a police officer in Anaheim; the officer recognized the gun wasn't real before aiming his weapon. In June, a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy in Carson mistook a $2 toy for a .22-caliber pistol and fired a round at a youth. The shot missed, hitting a tree.
Other organizations have pitched in to help Kioumehr, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has organized Anti-Violence Day events with her.
"We support the idea that toy guns are not good. Toy guns can result in kids getting killed," said Richard Browning, head of LAUSD's security committee.
As part of the school district's zero-tolerance policy toward guns, Browning said, a principal can expel a student for bringing a realistic-looking fake weapon into the classroom, Browning said. Some students use such items to intimidate peers.
"The kids see the gun as solving a problem," said Robert Barner, who heads the school district's Jordan/Locke Cluster. This school year in Barner's cluster, three elementary students have been expelled for carrying fake guns, including one youth who brought a starter pistol to class. The Jordan/Locke area, which encompasses Watts and parts of South-Central Los Angeles, includes the Figueroa Street Elementary School, where teacher Alfredo Perez was wounded in the head by a stray bullet in February.
Barner said young children who bring toy guns to class are more likely to carry real ones when they get older. He added that the Anti-Violence Day Project will help discourage violence in young children before it's too late. Kioumehr's next Anti-Violence Day will be held May 18 at the Watts Community Center.
Toy gun exchanges have popped up in other cities. The Cleveland Lumberjacks, a professional hockey team, offered free tickets to children who turned in their toy guns. Police and other civic groups have organized toy gun exchanges in Allentown, Pa., and Durham, N.C.
After the 1994 shooting death of a 13-year-old boy in a New York City housing project by a policeman who thought the youth was carrying a real handgun, toy retailers Toys R Us and Kay-Bee Toy Stores removed realistic-looking weapons from their store shelves.
But some observers believe that instead of going after toy guns, activists should work to ban the real weapons.
"A lot of us played with toy guns as children" with no harmful consequences, said Los Angeles-based child psychologist Robert Butterworth. "Let's take our energy and ban the real thing."
He added that while cultural influences such as television violence and playing with toy guns may desensitize youths to violence, that does not mean children will grow up to be violent. A primary factor that causes children to become violent, he believes, is witnessing violence in the home--which can trigger destructive behavior in young people.
Getting toy guns off the street is just one step toward ridding society of violence, Kioumehr acknowledged. But she said she hopes others will be inspired by her goal.
"If there is no violence," Kioumehr asked, "isn't that a better society for each of us?"
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Today's centerpiece focuses on the Anti-Violence Day Project, which encourages children to give up toy guns in an effort to raise awareness about violence. The project is run by Dr. Farideh Kioumehr, president of the International Health and Epidemiology Research Center. For more information, call (818) 788-2662.