To Teach or Not Teach Gun Safety in School

It may be the only issue people on both sides of the gun control debate can agree on.

Proponents and foes of gun control say they want gun education and avoidance programs taught in public schools from kindergarten through middle school or even high school.

And activists aren’t the only ones supporting gun education. Spurred by the series of school shootings in recent years, school districts and state legislatures across the country are pushing for gun education in the classroom.

Three weeks after a first grade boy brought to school a gun he found at home and shot his 6-year-old classmate in Mount Morris Township, Mich., the state Legislature passed a gun safety education provision with strong bipartisan support.

But the political compromise tends to end there. It’s much harder to agree on just what kids should be taught about gun safety or whether gun education programs have any affect at all, said Heidi Cifelli, manager of the National Rifle Association’s Eddie Eagle Gun Safe Program, which is now taught in Michigan elementary schools.

While fewer kids are bringing guns to school, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the rate of firearms death among children younger than 13 remains 25 times that of the other top 25 industrialized nations combined.

“Gun education is not mandatory in any state as far as we know, but of course we think all schools should have it,” said Cifelli. “Gun education is the best way to save young lives.”

The NRA Approach

Cifelli says the NRA would like more schools to use its program, called “Eddie Eagle,” which teaches kids in grades K-6 to “Stop. Don’t Touch. Leave the Area. Tell an Adult,” when they see a gun. The program uses the character of an American Bald Eagle, sometimes in the form of a live mascot, throughout its lessons for children.

In the past two years Wisconsin, Oregon, and New York state Legislatures have tried to pass bills that would have made Eddie Eagle a mandatory part of the school curriculum. None of the bills were successful.

So far the week-long Eddie Eagle program, which includes coloring books, a video and often a visit from a local police officer dressed in an Eddie Eagle costume, has reached 13 million kids since 1988, said Cifelli. Eddie Eagle is usually taught as a special program by local police departments. But some schools have incorporated it into their regular health curriculums along with drug and alcohol education and sex education — depending on the grade level.

Opponents Have Different Approach

“Eddie Eagle is often referred to as Joe Camel dressed up in feathers. The Eddie Eagle program tends to glamorize guns by making them seem like something you can only do when you’re an adult — just like drinking and smoking. You know what happens when you tell a child something like that. They want to do it more than ever,” said Nancy Hwa, a spokesperson for the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, which offers its own gun safety education program called STAR.

STAR, or Straight Talk About Risks, is a K-12 program designed to be incorporated into school curriculums. It includes video and role playing activities to teach kids about anger management, conflict resolution and the possible consequences of handling a gun or using a firearm to resolve a conflict. Since its creation in 1992 it has been used in 80 school districts, which means more than 1000 schools nationwide.

The NRA in turn has criticized STAR by saying it teaches children that guns and gun owners are bad.

But critics of Eddie Eagle, STAR and the handful of lesser-known gun education programs for kids in school say there is no evidence that gun education alone reduces gun violence or gun-related injuries.

Critics Doubt Any Program Will Work

“The fact is that neither of these educational programs have ever been thoroughly evaluated and we don’t really know if they work or not. But there is a need to do something and an education program is a more direct and less controversial way to address handgun violence and injuries,” said Dr. Stephen Hargarten, chairman of Emergency Medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Despite the criticism, officials in Carroll County school district, Md., will be among the most recent to experiment with a gun-avoidance program in grades K-12, starting this fall. Their program is based on both Eddie Eagle and STAR, but has been “tailored to fit our community,” said William Piercy, assistant supervisor of staff development and health for the district.

If the pilot program goes well, the school board plans to approve an official gun education program in the health curriculum by fall 2001.

“We think the best way to prevent accidents with guns and gun violence is through education. We live in a community where people do keep guns in their homes, people still hunt and there is still a farming community,” Piercy said.

“Teachers and parents can’t be with a child all the time so we need to educate them about the dangers of guns,” he added. “We teach kids about bicycle safety and about alcohol and drugs and sex education so they will have a foundation they can take with them in all situations.”

A few teachers were concerned the program may call for unloaded guns in the school for demonstrations. But there will be no guns in the classroom, Piercy said.

“It’s amazing how people in the community on both sides of the political spectrum have supported this. Most people agree it’s better to tackle the issue up front than try to avoid it,” Piercy said.

However, Hargarten and his colleague at the Medical College of Wisconsin, Richard Withers, co-director of the college’s Firearms Injury Center say they worry schools and parents will come to rely on education too much.

“I think education programs aren’t harmful, but whether it’s good for us to rely on them entirely is another question,” said Withers, who supports federal and private research dollars going to develop safe gun technology rather evaluation of gun education programs.

Daniel Webster, a health policy researcher at The Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health said most child psychologists and pediatricians agree kids will be kids to a large extent. Often children don’t hear what they don’t want to hear.

“Guns still appear glamorous to them in films and television and among their peers,” he said. “Education alone won’t do it and it can sometimes make parents and teachers somewhat complacent,” he said.

The Department of Education agrees that relying solely on education is not the answer.

“In schools the only thing that works to stop gun violence is some education combined with intervention, counselors in every school, parents getting involved, teachers being trained and involved and so on. Education is no silver bullet. It’s not really proven to work at all,” said Melinda Maliko, a department spokesperson.