Kids with guns: Should the armed forces encourage young people to interact with weapons and military vehicles?
Why this should be challenged
The armed forces present their careers to young people as a route to personal fulfillment and social mobility ignoring the many risks, difficulties and legal obligations that a military career involves. Children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable to sophisticated marketing messages and to the use of objects of war – weapons and military vehicles – to promote the military. See more in our Selling the Military report.
Space for peace
Seeing weapons and military vehicles in public spaces and community events normalises war and sanitises armed violence. The visible presence of military hardware in public spaces dominates the space with symbols of warfare and military approaches, creating a sense of preparing for the next war and eroding the shared assumption that as communities we are working for peace. Displays of military hardware are more likely to divide communities than unite them as many people do not consider that military activities should be presented as family fun and entertainment.
Local groups have raised concerns about how displays of weapons within their communities may impact refugees from countries that have suffered at the sharp end of armed conflict.
It is vital that children and young people are encouraged to have empathy, awareness and sensitivity towards others within their community or elsewhere in the world. Perpetuating the idea that British military power should be exerted abroad is unlikely to help broaden awareness of the reality of armed conflict situations and their long-term impact,
Duty of care
Many councils have responded to requests for information by saying that allowing children below recruitment age (16 years) to handle weapons is a matter of parental/guardian consent, rather than council policy. The military has suggested this is what its own policy is although they have avoided our attempts to verify this with them.
Other councils have stated that the armed forces oversee all matters relating to safeguarding at military events.
This raises a number of questions.
- Is it standard practice for personnel to ask the ages of children or young people approaching them to handle weapons?
- Is parental/guardian consent simply assumed, or is it taken by word of mouth or by signing a form?
- If children or young people below recruitment age are not accompanied by a parent/guardian, are they refused access to weapons.
- The council has a duty of care towards children and young people. If it believes parental/guardian consent should be necessary for children or young people below recruitment age to handle weapons, how does it ensure this is implemented?
- Other activities which involve exposing children and young people to virtual weapons and violence carry age restrictions regardless of parental consent – see below. Should the council and armed forces consider these restrictions as appropriate to the handling of military weapons?
Many councils appear to not have a policy on the matter. Yet, given a council’s duty of care towards young people in its area, should they not assess their position, taking into consideration wider safeguarding concerns?
It has been frequently asserted by councils in response to our questions that military weapons displayed and handled by the public are either decommissioned or deactivated in some way. The public are not able to fire them and therefore the danger is removed.
As the assumption is that the weapons are not live, our question is whether children and young people interacting with real military weapons constitutes their exposure to a realistic ‘virtual’ depiction of violence which may not be appropriate at certain ages, regardless of parental consent.
The UK follows the Pan-European Game Information (PEGI) age rating system for computer games which states that under 16 year olds (who are also under the minimum age of military recruitment in the UK) cannot play games where ‘the depiction of violence (or sexual activity) reaches a stage that looks the same as would be expected in real life.’
This age limit suggests that it is deemed inappropriate and potentially harmful to expose children and young people under a certain age to violence-related situations. If this is relevant for virtual gaming, it is also relevant for being exposed to real weaponry – rocket launchers, missile systems, machine guns as well as rifles and pistols – in public spaces. The ‘realness’ of handling genuine weapons while interacting with uniformed military personnel and being shown how the weapons work, is far greater in some ways than pretending to handle weapons with a controller on a simulated video game.
When considering the exposure of children and young people to virtual depictions of weaponised violence, the fact that they are not at immediate physical risk is not the point. There are more nuanced wellbeing concerns relating to how they may process and interact with the violence, what messages are being conveyed to them – and what messages are not – and what impact this might have. The more ‘real’ the virtual scenario, the greater the concerns.
The weapons themselves are realistic, but there will be no realistic depictions of the impact these weapons have. Inviting people to interact with very real weapons for entertainment is highly problematic.
For very young children, the PEGI systems states that games can only include ‘very mild forms of violence (implied, non-detailed, or non-realistic)’. While the potential impact of the weaponised violence showcased at public military events is only ‘implied’, it is nonetheless ‘realistic’ and it is also ‘detailed’ – it uses genuine weapons which children are invited to handle close-up, while being surrounded by uniformed personnel and other military paraphernalia.
If age restriction laws are used to safeguard children and young people from virtual violence in video games, then due thought should be given to how those same age groups interact and practice with real weapons at military events.
In 2008 the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child called for the UK to cease its recruitment of under eighteen year olds. This was reaffirmed in 2016, when they said:
‘The Committee recommends that the State party: (a) Consider reviewing its position and raise the minimum age for recruitment into the armed forces to 18 years in order to promote the protection of children through an overall higher legal standard; (b) Reconsider its active policy of recruitment of children into the armed forces and ensure that recruitment practices do not actively target persons under the age of 18 and ensure that military recruiters’ access to school be strictly limited…ensure that recruitment does not have a discriminatory impact on children of ethnic minorities and low-income families.’ (emphasis added)
Military displays in public spaces where children and young people are actively encouraged to talk to recruiters, handle weapons and take recruitment literature, clearly does constitute targeting persons under the age of 18. At the very least, preventing this from occurring for those children who are under the current minimum age of military recruitment would be a positive step towards compliancy with the recommendations of the UN.
The UN on firearms
In 2008 the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child said in relation to the UK that: ‘The Committee encourages that the handling and use of firearms is abolished for all children in line with the spirit of the Optional Protocol.’
The UK has not only failed to do this, but also increased the number of cadet units in schools where pupils handle and shoot weapons.
We note that the UNCRC did not specify that these firearms must be live, and while this recommendation came in the context of under eighteen year olds who are military personnel handling weapons, it seems clear that children handling firearms and other weapons at public military events, is not in the spirit of the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, to which the UK is a signatory.
Armed Forces Covenant
Some councils have used the Armed Forces Covenant to justify or explain why they allow or encourage military promotion in public spaces and in some cases, events where military recruitment takes place. For example, Wrexham council altered its position in relation to military events in public spaces after the Covenant was signed.
Some councils have handed over responsibility for anything concerning the military in their local area to committees or boards where the military is significantly represented. Many others have Armed Forces Champions, who are members of the council but represent the interests of the armed forces.
The Armed Forces Covenant should not result in blanket support for all military activities. Its primary aim is to remove disadvantage for the armed forces community in accessing local services and opportunities.
Concerns over the recruitment practices of the UK armed forces, including enlisting 16 and 17 year olds has come from many quarters, including the UN, children’s rights organisations, faith groups and parliamentary committees. The armed forces is recognised as a career with unique risks. As such, local councils should not privilege or encourage military recruitment activities and should oversee the running of military events rather than hand over responsibility to individuals or boards which are swayed by the interests of the military.
With growing calls for an active dialogue with young people around violence, most urgently because of deaths and injuries due to knife crime in particular, a wider conversation about the allure of weapons is vital. Furthermore, the level of virtual violence depicted in culture and gaming, in which young people are often immersed from a young age, is at an all time high.
Some councils actively support initiatives for peace and human rights. For example, over 80 councils in the UK are part of the global Mayors for Peace network which advocates for a nuclear-free world. This makes a good starting point for arguing that weapons should not be displayed as entertainment.
In 2015, the French defence ministry claimed that it would take disciplinary action when primary school pupils were allowed to try out unloaded assault rifles.
In 2016, after public alarm that young children were being encouraged to handle weapons at publc events, Germany’s defence minister announced that this would no longer be allowed to happen. The German military’s own rules already stated that no under-18s can handle weapons.
If this practice is seen as unacceptable in France and Germany, it should also be seen as unacceptable in the UK!