Austin, Texas — In Detroit, more than 150,000 wallet-size cards listing hotlines to the police and school security have been passed out to schoolchildren this year. The cards' message: Report kids carrying guns. In Houston, elementary schoolchildren are taught the dangers of guns, and their parents are taught gun safety in a program begun several years ago by surgeons alarmed over the number of children they were treating - and too often losing - for gunshot wounds.
In Miami, schoolchildren from kindergarten through high school will begin participating in January in the nation's first all-grade, mandatory gun-awareness program.
From coast to coast, efforts to educate children about the dangers of firearms are growing as schools try to cope with a frightening rise in the number of children carrying guns. Gunfire is a leading cause of deaths, both accidental and intentional, among Americans from five to 24 years of age.
At the same time, controversy is brewing between anti-gun forces that advocate a ``just-say-no'' approach to children and guns, and gun enthusiasts who support gun-safety instruction that targets carelessness in the handling of guns, and not weapons themselves, as the evil to be cured.
Statistics and anecdotal evidence abound to indicate that some form of intervention is overdue. Detroit lists more than 50 youths under 18 killed by handguns this year. The number of guns found in Miami schools has already surpassed 100 this year. Communities across the country report the sad results of children playing with what they thought was either a toy or an unloaded gun.
But just as the place of guns in society remains an emotional issue for many Americans, so are efforts involving children in gun awareness.
``The only thing they need to be taught [about guns] is the just-say-no attitude,'' says Marjolijn Biglefeld, executive director of the Education Fund to End Handgun Violence. The Washington-based organization plans to help cities across the country develop programs, like Detroit's, to discourage children's handling and use of guns.
In addition to distributing the cards with hotline numbers, the Detroit City Council's Youth Advisory Commission has mounted a citywide awareness campaign featuring hard-hitting posters. The newest poster shows 16 of the city's recent teen-age victims of handgun violence.
As part of Detroit's gun-education campaign, Michigan Consolidated Gas Co. is providing coloring books entitled ``Guns are not for fun'' to first- and second-graders.
The National Rifle Association has also created a gun-safety comic book it plans to distribute to interested schools across the country - a move that has been met with considerable skepticism among some anti-gun groups and child psychologists. The book teaches children to leave unattended guns untouched but to report them to an adult.
``I'm concerned about the message,'' says Ms. Biglefeld. ``I think it says to parents, `Relax, if you leave your gun out on the table, don't worry. We'll teach your kids what to do if they find it.''' She says she's ``all for telling kids to stay away from guns, whether it's me or the NRA.'' But she says teaching children gun safety ``sends a very different message. It says guns are fine to have around.''
``Guns are fine to have around,'' responds Tracey Martin, manager in the education and training division of the NRA. Ms. Martin notes that 70 million Americans own guns, exercising what she terms a constitutionally guaranteed right. But she adds that her organization is deeply involved in gun-safety issues, with 25,000 registered safety instructors across the country.
Biglefeld says she believes broad-based community programs, involving more than just schools, can help reduce the incidence of children using guns.
Most adults who work with children say any such program must include parental education as well, since it is generally adults who have the guns that children are finding. ``We're beginning to realize that most of the accidental shootings involve the guns of parents,'' says Ms. Smith. ``We need to involve the adult world with this.''
Houston's ``Project Safe,'' which involves both students and interested parents, incorporates some gun safety tips suggested by the NRA when the program was first implemented. ``We've tried to put the two approaches together,'' says Marilyn Finer-Collins, director of the Houston schools' Bureau of Guidance Counseling, ``because we really realize there are families out there that use guns for recreation and protection.''
Ms. Finer-Collins says she doesn't believe that incorporating gun safety with avoidance of guns is sending mixed signals. ``We're certainly not condoning guns, but we can't put our head in the sand either,'' she says. ``Like it or not, guns are in our society.''