By Paul Helmke
“Oh, my God, my baby, my baby,” screamed a woman in the background of a call to 911 late last month. Her gut-wrenching cries were, according to the Zanesville (Ohio) Times Recorder, followed by “Sounds… of individuals getting into a car, the car starting,” and then, “ ‘He’s not breathing’ is audible. The call then disconnects.”
This child whose breathing stopped was just three years old. His 13-year-old brother now stands accused of murdering him — with a shotgun. The news report doesn’t tell us why this horrible crime happened, but we do know that there hardly could be a more tragic scenario for any parent or family member than to see young lives destroyed by gunfire so quickly, so horribly, and so senselessly.
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I can see how tragedies such as this might lead some to find some merit in the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) push to force its “gun safety” program into Virginia schools, as it has done successfully in other states over the past 20 years.
But it would be wise to stop this misguided excuse for gun safety education in its tracks. The NRA dresses up its gun safety course in the guise of a colorful cartoon character named Eddie Eagle. Yet there is absolutely no evidence directly linking the use of the Eddie Eagle program to a decline in children’s deaths by guns. In fact, a study published in 2004 by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that children could memorize Eddie’s simple advice about avoiding guns, but that advice went unheeded when children were put in real-life scenarios and asked to role-play a response. Indeed, not a single child out of 11 in the Eddie Eagle program study “used the skills in a real-life situation.” The authors noted, “Studies have found that when children find guns, they often play with them,” and concluded: “Existing programs are insufficient for teaching gun-safety skills to children.”
Another study published in the late 1990s by the Violence Policy Center (VPC) noted that Eddie Eagle was like “Joe Camel with feathers,” pointing out that: “The primary goal of the National Rifle Association’s Eddie Eagle program is not to safeguard children, but to protect the interests of the NRA and the firearms industry by making guns more acceptable to children and youth…. The hoped-for result is new customers for the industry and new members for the NRA.”
When I look at the full record of NRA activities, it’s difficult for me to believe that the NRA leadership is serious about gun safety for children or anybody else. The cartoon bird provides a kid-friendly excuse to oppose stronger laws that would keep guns away from children — laws requiring adults to safely store their firearms out of the reach of children, for example. By promoting Eddie Eagle as its answer to gun safety, the NRA places the burden on children to stay away from guns. What’s more, the NRA repeatedly uses its lobbying muscle to fight proposals that would require firearms education courses and safety training for adults who want to purchase guns, and not on adults or parents to keep guns out of reach, or on manufacturers to make sure children can’t fire their weapons.
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Children in the United States die from gunfire at a higher rate than in any other industrialized nation, underscoring the need for gun safety education. But the responsibility for protecting children from these lethal weapons should not be dumped on already overburdened teachers and fiscally-strapped school districts that have limited instruction time. The responsibility belongs to parents, gun owners, and gun manufacturers.
When you consider the heart-ripping tragedies that mount every day in the form of accidental gun deaths, gun suicides, and the alleged gun homicide of a three-year-old by his sibling, one has to ask why. Why does the NRA continue to stand in the way of adult education and child safety laws that could stem the carnage?