Eagle Feathers Fly

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Gun safety programs for children and youth – including those run by the National Rifle Association and the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence – may do more harm than good, according to a recent report sponsored by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

“These programs haven’t been shown to work,” writes Marjorie S. Hardy, a professor at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla. “We’re accumulating a body of evidence that shows we may be unable to modify children’s behavior.”

“Though well-intentioned, many of these approaches are poorly designed, and some may even have the inadvertent effect of making the problem worse,” Hardy said in the report, “Behavior-Oriented Approaches to Reducing Youth Gun Violence,” in the July issue of Packard’s child safety journal, The Future of Children.

Better strategies include educating parents and promoting greater responsibility by gun owners, better gun designs and stronger regulation, the report concluded.

Officials at the NRA, while acknowledging a dearth of empirical research, said safety programs like their Eddie Eagle campaign do work.

“We know it’s effective because [fatal gun] accidents have gone down by 56 percent since 1988, when the program was started,” said John Robbins, an NRA spokesman.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 21,385 unintentional, nonfatal firearms injuries were reported in 1993, dropping to 13,055 in 1997. Unintentional deaths also dropped from 1,543 to 992.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation agreed with the NRA assessment that education programs are having a positive effect. “It’s the training the Boy Scouts offer, that the NRA offers, that we offer, the 4-H offers, that are helping push the numbers down,” said Gary Mehalik, vice president of communications. The organization, based in Newton, Conn., runs a national safety program that includes distributing trigger locks.

But Hardy’s is just the latest report to cast doubt on the impact of gun programs for youth. About three years ago the Colorado Trust released results from its nationwide search for programs that had proven to be effective in deterring youth handgun violence. Of 163 programs identified, only three had demonstrated positive results, and those came with caveats. (See “Anti-Gun Youth Programs Shoot Blanks, Funder Seeks New Tactics,” July/August 2000.)

Eddie Eagle is the NRA gun-safety program for elementary school youth. The program’s message has four basic directions for children who happen upon a gun: “Stop, don’t touch, leave the area and tell an adult.” The program was developed by a task force that included educators, psychologists, law enforcement officials and safety experts.

The program has been presented to more than 1 million children and is being used by 20,000 teachers and police officers, Robbins said.

The danger of programs like Eddie Eagle, Hardy said, is that children who take the courses may become more interested in guns, or may feel emboldened to handle weapons because of their training. Parents may also develop a false sense of security if their children take the course, Hardy said in an interview. “It could lead parents to believe their kids are gun-safe.”

The Eddie Eagle program also does not tell children why they should leave unattended guns alone, which Hardy said causes more problems. “If we tell kids not to do something without giving them a reason why, it’s likely to encourage them to do it,” she said.

“We’re not trying to scare kids, we’re trying to educate kids,” the NRA’s Robbins said. “We want them to know what to do when they find a gun unattended.”

Agendas and Smokescreens

Although the NRA does not have any empirical evidence the Eddie Eagle program works, researchers have little empirical evidence that such programs do not work. Hardy reviewed studies of other education programs that use similar methods to teach children to avoid other dangerous behaviors, such as drug abuse. She also reviewed dozens of studies, reports and books on gun safety, child behavior and injury prevention.

She also cited results from a study she helped conduct in 1996, "A Firearm Safety Program for Children: They Just Can’t Say No,” printed in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. The journal published Hardy’s “Teaching Firearm Safety to Children: Failure of a Program” in its April 2002 edition.

NRA officials also said they were not surprised by the tone of the Packard journal, which included several other gun-related chapters.

“The credibility of the study is the question” because Packard “has a political agenda,” said Andrew Arulanandam, another NRA spokesman. “It’s not as if it’s a scientific study undertaken by a nonpartisan group.”

The California-based foundation has made grants to several gun-control and gun-violence prevention organizations, including a $3.6 million grant to the Million Mom March in 2000. The foundation did not exert any editorial pressure for specific outcomes, said Kathleen Reich, senior staff editor of The Future of Children.

“The NRA is going to say whatever they’re going to say about this report,” Reich said.

Hardy’s work was also critical of two programs run by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence: the defunct Straight Talk About Risks and its Steps to Prevent Firearm Injury.

Nonetheless, the Washington-based Brady Center applauded the report and its recommendations, which are “basic measures we’ve been supporting for years,” said Brady Center spokeswoman Nancy Hwa. The center dropped its “Straight Talk” program because it was difficult to evaluate, she said.

Hwa said the safety programs serve another purpose: The NRA and other organizations “use them as cover, as a smokescreen against [taking] other action. … They use that as a way to distract from other effective methods.”

The Packard article is not the first to question the effectiveness of the NRA program. In November 1997, the Violence Policy Center (VPC) published a blistering article (“Joe Camel With Feathers”) about the program. (The article cited Hardy’s work.) The Washington-based gun-control organization concluded that the program was a marketing ploy to secure future customers. (See “Eddie Eagle Flies into Some Rough Weather,” Youth Today, January/February 1998.)

Concerns about the NRA in general derailed a bill in Maryland last year that would have required gun-safety training in schools. The NRA fought to ensure its Eddie Eagle program would be among the approved courses, which led Gov. Parris Glendening (D) to veto the bill. The law would have been the first of its kind in the nation.

Contacts: National Rifle Association, www.nra.org; The Future of Children, http://www.futureofchildren%20.org; National Shooting Sports Foundation, www.nssf.org; Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, http://www.brady%20campaign.org.