Eleven years ago, the National Rifle Association drew up a cartoon character called Eddie Eagle to try to teach children about guns. Eddie's message: If you find a gun, tell an adult; don't touch it.
Last month, the New York Legislature became the first in the country to officially endorse Eddie's message. And the Oregon legislature passed a law soon after that, making the message a part of school curricula.
Now, in the wake of the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., the moves have sparked a debate over what children should know about guns and who should determine the curriculum.
"Schools have not taken this up before - this is a new development because of Columbine," says Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy in Washington. He expects more states to take up the issue. "Representatives are looking for some way to say they are for safe gun control."
Opponents of the eagle maintain he is part of a subtle NRA ploy to teach children that guns are for adults - the same message the tobacco companies make about cigarettes. They complain that the NRA material, which includes a videotape and workbooks, never warns that guns are dangerous. "It's Joe Camel with feathers," says Josh Sugarman of the Violence Policy Center in Washington. "Eddie Eagle is not a gun-safety mascot, but a gun-industry salesman."
Fewer accidental shootings
The NRA, based in Fairfax, Va., defends the program as a "national standard" that has reached children (12 million of them) in every state. Twelve states have passed resolutions supporting the program. Jim Manown, an NRA spokesman, notes that accidental shootings of children under the age of 14 have been dropping for years.
"The primary reason is education and training for youngsters," says Mr. Manown, adding that the bird is not trying to sell anything.
But questions about the efficacy of the program were raised on a recent installment of ABC's "20/20." The TV show's producers placed guns in an empty room. Children who had gone through the program were sent in. Some followed Eddie Eagle's advice and left to find an adult. But many others wandered over to the guns, picked them up, and fired them (they had no ammunition).
The NRA protested that the show was an unfair portrayal, because the children did not receive a complete Eddie Eagle curriculum. "The children were set up for failure all in an effort to lead the audience to 20/20's viewpoint that safety education does not work," wrote Kathy Cassidy, manager of the Eddie Eagle program, on the NRA's Web site.
To antigun groups, "20/20" confirmed that the NRA program does not work. "They have never been evaluated," says Joan Wallstein of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, a grass-roots group.
Ms. Wallstein would rather see schools use a program called Straight Talk About Risks (STAR), developed by the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence in Washington. STAR focuses more on combating peer pressure and resolving conflicts nonviolently. STAR encourages parents to talk to their children about the dangers of guns and the consequences of gun violence. The NRA opposes the program.
Educators wonder if schools are the right place to take up gun education, regardless of the specific program. Today, most children learn about guns in clubs or scouting activities. Mr. Jennings calls the recent efforts another "well-intentioned thing to load up the school day so kids can't concentrate on academics."
In New York State, proponents of the new law deny that it is strictly oriented toward Eddie Eagle. "If schools come up with a better program, they may throw the Eddie Eagle program out - it's not required," says state Sen. George Maziarz, the sponsor of the legislation.
But when Democratic state Sen. Eric Schneiderman of New York City tried to amend the legislation by taking out the references to Eddie Eagle, his effort was rebuffed.
Sense of urgency
Mr. Maziarz, a Lockport Republican, says the state needed to do something about children's use of guns. Last year, he says, a child was accidentally shot in his district. "We do have a problem," he says.
For the past six years, the state Senate has killed legislation that would require parents to lock up their guns and ammunition separately in places where children can't get them. The NRA opposes such bills.
It took three years for Maziarz, who is not a member of the NRA, to get the school curriculum law through the Legislature.
Mr. Schneiderman says it slipped past the Democratic-controlled Assembly because it was described simply as authorizing gun safety, and its ties to the NRA were not obvious. "You have to give the NRA credit; they kept it below the radar screen and slipped it through," Schneiderman says.
Schools in New York State that opt to teach the Eddie Eagle curriculum will have to buy materials - such as videos, lesson plans, and workbooks - from the NRA. "If a lot of schools bought them, the cost could run in the millions," estimates Schneiderman.
The NRA says it sells the materials at cost. "We're not in this to make a profit," says Manown.