Death of children demands gun education

Jimmy and Michael are playing cops and robbers one afternoon at Jimmy’s house, when Jimmy finds his father’s gun in a drawer. The boys now have the perfect prop for the game they are playing. Jimmy can be anyone he has ever wanted to be; he can be Mel Gibson from “Lethal Weapon” or Keanu Reeves in “The Matrix.” The possibilities are endless.

That is Ö until Jimmy, handling a tool that should never have been left accessible to him, accidentally shoots Michael and kills him. Now a young boy is dead and an all-too-tragic story has repeated itself once again.

According to the Violence Policy Center (an anti-gun group), between 1986 and 1995 more than 2,200 kids under the age 14 lost their lives to unintentional shootings. This is a mortality statistic that simply cannot be ignored. Many of these deaths occur in situations similar to the aforementioned: young children happen upon a gun, play with it without understanding the possible consequences and treat it as a toy rather than a dangerous tool.

But what is to be done about these tragedies? The gun lobby endures the majority of barbs and accusations from political and social activists for the loss of life through such accidents. Some of these attacks hypocritically come from mascots of Hollywood violence – actors such as Mel Gibson and Martin Sheen who have glorified (not to mention misrepresented) these weapons in their ultra-violent movies. Evidently, pointing fingers at someone besides themselves and attacking the manufacturers of the firearms is easier than holding themselves accountable.

Concerned about the severity of gun-related deaths, both the pro-gun and anti-gun lobbies have turned to parents, pleading with them to safely store any firearms they might own – recommending they keep them in a place where they cannot fall into the hands of children. This does not include the top drawer of a nightstand or under one’s pillow, but in a secure place such as a gun safe. Yet in 2,200 instances between 1986 and 1995, this message failed to reach gun owners; unfortunately, the results have been fatal.

As members of the next generation, this is an issue we must face. If the adults of this country continue to be so ignorant of their responsibilities regarding careful gun ownership, then perhaps its time we take the message to the children by teaching them some form of gun safety in their schools.

When I use the term “gun safety,” I do not mean teaching tykes general firearms knowledge, necessary for a novice to receive a hunting license. However, I do believe we should teach our children the bare essentials needed to keep themselves and their friends safe, should they ever encounter a gun.

And why not? It is through education that we handle many of our nation’s other safety concerns. We combated the country’s drug problems by creating the D.A.R.E. program; we run programs in our schools to teach kids about the dangers of power lines; in health education we teach about the dangers of smoking, drinking and sex. We educate our children on how to be as safe as possible around automobiles; we tell them to wear their seatbelts and we mandate student courses on school bus safety.

Yet, when the idea comes across for gun safety education in school, such programs encounter resistance from the political left, many of whom declare that making firearms illegal is the only real solution to ending the problem. Sure, that will solve everything. After all, drugs are illegal – they have been for 40-plus years – and of course they’re not a problem anymore, are they?

I am not advocating bringing a real gun into the classroom. Loaded or not, a real gun has no place inside of a school. Instead, models, illustrations or photos should be used (though for education alone, never sensationalism or politics). Plastic toy guns shouldn’t be used as they might compromise the message that guns are serious business and might give students the dangerous impression guns are to be “played” with. This might take a while for students to understand, as they will need continual education to filter out the influence of Hollywood from their heads.

The idea of an in-school gun safety program is not an altogether new phenomenon. In 1987, Marion Hammer – then the National Rifle Association lobbyist for the state of Florida – created the “Eddie Eagle” program. This educational program, which has been endorsed by the National Sheriff’s Organization, 4-H and both the Boy and Girl Scouts, among others, works to teach gun safety to kids enrolled in education levels preschool to sixth grade. The program works by teaching students the four basic steps upon encountering a gun: Stop, Don’t Touch, Leave the Area, Tell an Adult.

To date, the Eddie Eagle message has been delivered to over 15 million children. The message is taught through a variety of activities, videos and workbooks, all presented by a cartoon bald eagle. However, the anti-gun lobby contends Eddie Eagle is not used to teach gun safety as much as he’s insidiously used to sell guns to kids – much the same way Joe Camel sells cigarettes to adolescents.

I prefer to believe Eddie Eagle is used simply because a cartoon character is the best way to bring a message to children – much the same way we use McGruff the Crime Dog to teach kids to “take a bite out of crime” or Smokey the Bear to teach kids how they can prevent forest fires. Of course, if I ever see little 7-year-old Timmy riding his bike down the street with an Eddie Eagle-endorsed Glock in his left hand, I will withdraw my statement. But I think I’m safe.

I suppose it’s to be expected the anti-gun lobby would oppose the introduction of any NRA-funded program into the national educational mainstream. The thought Charlton Heston might come to their child’s “show and tell” day might be enough to start them marching again.

But the fact is the NRA has no more involvement with this program than funding it and donating the necessary materials. Since 1998, the year of the program’s inception, the NRA has spent over $20 million on the gun safety education program for schools. In fact, if you scour the entire instruction kit, you’ll find that the NRA’s name is never even mentioned. Not once.

Yet the anti-gun lobby still grows squeamish, denouncing the program as nothing but a giant recruiting tool of the NRA. Evidently, there’s just no pleasing some people. But that’s fine, I wrote this column to promote gun safety education for the youth of our nation, not specifically NRA-funded gun safety education. If nothing else, the Eddie Eagle program serves as a wonderful blueprint for how to conduct such educational activities.

Effectively delivering the message is far more important than who the messenger is. And although NRA sponsors the Eddie Eagle program, it has been taught in schools by more than 20,000 teachers and law enforcement officers. In any event, whether an institution decides to accept the NRA-sponsored program or some alternative, the teachers of such classes already exist in our communities. All we need to do is make use of them.

In one decade, 2,200 American children have died due to gun-related accidents – accidents that could have been prevented through education. Since Eddie Eagle’s first appearance in schools in 1988, firearm accidents involving children have dropped 56 percent (according to the National Center for Health Statistics). Is that all due to the Eddie Eagle program? Of course not, but it and other education programs are surely making an impact. Imagine how that percentage might drop further if we had more programs in additional locations across the country.

Children need to know about guns and how to be safe. Even if you plan to make your home a gun-free home, that doesn’t protect your child from what they might encounter in the outside world – only following them around 24 hours a day can do that.

Hollywood has done its part to sensationalize gun use as nothing more than glorified violence, free of any serious ramifications. They have instilled the lies; it is our responsibility to teach the truth.


Chris Schafer’s column appears alternate Wednesdays. He welcomes comments at [email protected] Send letters to the editor to [email protected]