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Published in Print: April 19, 2000, as NRA's Gun-Safety Course Finds Favor in Schools

NRA's Gun-Safety Course Finds Favor in Schools

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Even as some educators are going up against the National Rifle Association in the hallways of statehouses and the U.S. Capitol over gun control, others are bringing the organization's gun-avoidance program into their classrooms in a different kind of effort to safeguard children against firearms.

The NRA's Eddie Eagle Gun Safe Program is not the only program of its kind available to teachers, but it is the largest, having reached by its own estimates 12 million children since 1988. Geared to elementary students, Eddie Eagle's lessons revolve around a central lesson on what children should do if they see a gun: "Stop! Don't touch. Leave the area. Tell an adult."

"Just as Smokey the Bear teaches children not to play with matches," the NRA says on its World Wide Web site, "Eddie Eagle teaches them that firearms are not toys, and should not be touched without adult supervision."

But some observers say that unlike Smokey, Eddie Eagle has garnered a good deal of attention from state lawmakers throughout the country and, in so doing, dominated the debate over how and whether gun-violence prevention should be taught in schools.

A recent report by the Handgun Epidemic Lowering Plan, or HELP, Network in Chicago identified nine programs that discourage children and young adults from carrying guns. Still, said Emile LeBrun, a spokesman for the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, "most of the discussions about what should be implemented usually begin with the Eddie Eagle program."

At least a dozen legislatures have passed resolutions endorsing Eddie Eagle's message and encouraging the program's use in schools since 1994. Just last week in Ohio, for example, Gov. Bob Taft, a Republican, urged lawmakers to pass a bill requiring safe storage of firearms that includes a $100,000 allocation for a pilot program to support implementing Eddie Eagle or courses similar to it.

"We wanted to make sure this was not a gun-training program, but a firearm-safety program for young children," said Rep. Ann H. Womer Benjamin, the Republican who sponsored the Ohio bill. "The Eddie Eagle program is a well-regarded safety program."

Not Everyone Agrees

But last year, Gov. John Kitzhaber of Oregon, a Democrat, and Gov. George E. Pataki of New York, a Republican, both vetoed legislation that would have implemented the NRA program in elementary schools in their respective states. They said the decision should be left to schools and not be mandated by the state.

Alicia Horton, the director of the education division for Handgun Control Inc., the nation's leading gun-control-advocacy group, said Eddie Eagle offers a lot of flash and too little substance. "The Eddie Eagle program primarily consists of puzzles and games and is targeted for a very young audience," Ms. Horton said. "It is not very substantive in terms of having materials that are well-steeped in education theory."

Handgun Control's own gun-safety program, the Straight Talk About Risks, or STAR, program, began in 1992 and has reached some 2 million young people in 99 school districts, according to the organization's estimates. The program has different curriculum materials available for different grades, and its lessons focus on anger management, conflict resolution, and self-esteem building.

"We come from the perspective that all children are at risk for gun violence, and we want to make sure they have the necessary skill set to remove themselves from violent situations," Ms. Horton said.

Regardless of the approach to gun-safety instruction, however, the HELP Network noted in its report that little research had been done on Eddie Eagle or any other gun-safety programs to determine their effectiveness in preventing gun violence, both accidental and intentional.

Some experts say that without such information, schools run the risk of spending time and money on ineffective, or even destructive, programs.

"The bottom line is that there's precious little in the way of evaluations of these programs," said Katherine Kaufer Christoffel, the medical director for the HELP Network. "What has been done suggests that there might be paradoxical effects in older children, where talking about guns stirs up anxieties. We just need to be sure that we're doing what we set out to do."

Vol. 19, Issue 32, Page 19

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