In the wake of school shootings at Newtown, Virginia Tech, Columbine, etc., lots of attention has been devoted to keeping weapons away from schools. It’s not as if weapons were permitted on campuses prior to these incidents, but there has (not improperly) been much stricter scrutiny of student behavior towards weapons in recent years and months. Sometimes these policies miss their mark, though, as is being illustrated by the many instances where school zones have moved towards fairly draconian “zero tolerance” policies. Often, these policies have been instituted on safety grounds – because, of course, the threat of suspension is a very effective deterrent to an unhinged teenager thinking about toting a gun to school – but, as Christina Hoff Summers points out in this TIME magazine article, “zero tolerance” (and similar) policies are also attempting to re-wire the young male mind. Both the policies and the boys that they are trying to control, however, are failing.

As it turns out, “action-narrative-play” of the heroic variety that has captured boyhood imaginations for generations is so hard-wired into the young male psyche that trying to exorcise it may stunt a boy’s language, social, and (interestingly) moral development. As such, the rising and ever harsher intolerance for any game that even hints of violence (regardless of its source or its direction) might also help explain why boys are increasingly disillusioned with school and falling behind their female counterparts. And yet, even at this high cost, the young male fascination with weapons and narrative conflict doesn’t seem to be disappearing (as Christine Gross-Loh explores in this Atlantic article, arguing for a loosening of “zero tolerance”-style policies – an argument largely mirrored by this article about girls).

This alone recommends that we re-examine our approach to boyhood imagination in schools, but consider Hoff Summers’s brief mention of the male moral imagination particularly carefully and how the demonization of all violence might impact that. In the rush to avoid a repeat of Newtown, “zero tolerance”-style policies have misidentified the source of such evils as weapons and violence themselves (a point that we made here shortly after the Newtown tragedy). This doesn’t mean that gun control is necessarily unreasonable or that relaxed gun policies cannot contribute to the problem, but it does mean that they do not create the problem, and pretending that they do can have dire consequences. If guns are the source of evil (and if we tell our children that), then how is a boy supposed to distinguish the cop and the robber? Between the soldier and the terrorist? Between the protector and the aggressor?

Both of these roles tend to be filled by men, and both of them are toting weapons; one of them, however, understands restraint and sacrifice, while the other is controlled by passion and selfishness. But if boys are not permitted to distinguish between the two at an early age, can we really trust that they’ll distinguish between them later?