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Rev. Rodney Francis wants your toy guns.

Francis, pastor of the Washington Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis, is collecting toy guns in an effort to change the culture of violence among young black men in a city that recorded 113 homicides last year.

The bold project is called the “Toy Gun Buy Back Initiative” and here’s how it works: Children can turn in toy weapons and violent video games and exchange them for a range of other toys like building sets and craft kits.

“We want to talk about the culture of violence and how we are condoning the culture of violence,” Francis told “We want to discourage violence through non-violent toys and challenge parents –and the community – to put non-violent toys in the hands of our children.”

Francis announced the initiative last week at Washington Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church, the historic site where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once spoke during a civil rights rally in 1963. And while nearly 100 toy guns have been exchanged so far, Francis hopes that parents and community leaders will continue to support the initiative in the weeks ahead.

The goal of the faith-based project is to collect 1,000 toy guns, but the broader mission is to encourage mothers and fathers to think differently about the kinds of toys that are given to kids. Francis said research suggests that toy guns desensitize children to violence and causes them to be less empathetic to victims of gun violence.

“We think we were successful because there is evidence that people did get our message,” Francis said. “One mother brought in about 15 toy guns from one home and said, ‘I want these out of my house.’ That’s the response we were hoping for.”

“Mothers get it,” Francis added, “It’s the men who have a hard time with the initiative. It goes to the issue of how we raise our boys.”

Pro-gun rights groups are skeptical, too. They accuse Francis of using his program to violate the Second Amendment by scaring children about guns. A few gun enthusiasts called Francis’ church and sent him e-mails to complain about his initiative.

“I explained our position,” Francis said. “Some understood and others, well, we agreed to disagree.”

Francis plans to elevate the discussion about rising crime in St. Louis as more black teenagers are picking up guns to settle street-corner quarrels. His toy gun buy-back initiative has the support of the St. Louis Police Department and the county Sherriff’s Department.

The pastor’s effort is noble and I believe his initiative can help facilitate an intelligent dialogue about gun violence in America. But he needs help. Black parents – and black fathers in particular — should join Francis’ cause since he’s responding admirably to a national crisis.

And Francis and his wife, Dr. Leah Francis, are also leading by example: they have two young sons who don’t play with toy guns or any violent toy weapons.

Leah Francis, Assistant Professor of Christian Education at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, said in a recent essay that parents who allow their children to play with toys as harmless as water pistols still sends the wrong message to their kids.

“Gun violence is largely concentrated in parts of the city that are disproportionately black and poor, but its reverberations are often felt around the metro area,” she wrote. “And in all of these spaces, children are present. Too many of St. Louis’ children have heard gunshots, know someone who has been shot, or have witnessed a shooting.”

“They have seen violent images on television and heard violent expressions set to music,” she added. “Exposure to violence has become par for the course for many of St. Louis’ children. This reality is a far cry from the idealistic images of childhood that show children playing freely without having to duck and run for cover.”

Sadly, the toy-buy-back initiative comes as a six-year-old girl remains in critical condition after she was seriously wounded in a shooting last week while attending a vigil with her family in Chicago.

Quianna Tompkins and at least 40 others were at the home for a memorial for 24-year-old Brandon “Bones” Snipe, who was killed five years ago during a shootout.

Tompkins was shot in the chest and was listed in critical condition at Advocate Christ Medical Center.

“What’s the purpose?” a witness, Tasha Moore, told reporters. “Whoever you want, you go up to them. You don’t shoot in no crowd with kids and women.”

Black children and young black men are dying senselessly in urban cities every day. In fact, 54 people were shot in Chicago during George Zimmerman’s three-week murder trial in the Trayvon Martin shooting. I hope more black parents begin to take ownership of a cultural epidemic that could wipe out a generation of young black men.

“The bottom line is this: as parents and caregivers, we have the power to choose what we put in our children’s hands,” Leah Francis wrote. “Why not choose toys and activities that will stimulate their intellect, nurture their creativity, and enliven their spirits? Why would we choose to have our children mimic the very behavior that has destroyed immeasurable numbers of families and communities?”

These are very challenging questions. I’m glad Rev. Rodney Francis is working on the answers.