NRA President Marion Hammer launched the Eddie Eagle program in her home state of Florida in 1988 in an effort to kill child access prevention (CAP) legislation being considered by the state assembly that year. The impetus for the CAP law was a series of unintentional shootings involving children. Such legislation subjects adults to criminal penalties if they fail to store their firearm in a manner reasonably designed to prevent access by children and death or injury results. Hammer, as head of the NRA-fundedt pro-gun Unified Sportsmen of Florida, led the fight against the measure, claiming that attempting to modify the behavior of children was a better approach than holding adults responsible for unsafe firearm storage practices. Although Hammer failed to stop the bill, she succeeded in having it amended to require the Florida Department of Education to develop guidelines for a gun awareness program for municipal school districts by March 1989. In July 1988 then-Governor Bob Martinez signed the CAP legislation into law.
A public battle between the National Rifle Association and gun control advocates over what form the “gun awareness program” would take immediately ensued. Throughout the year, Hammer had attempted to have the newly minted Eddie Eagle materials introduced in Florida. The battle became heated when, after the bill’s passage, Hammer attempted to introduce the program into the Dade County school system.
Hammer’s initial attempts were met with opposition. In a December 1988 Sarasota Herald Tribune article, William Harris, then-supervisor for safety in the Dade County school system, said the NRA program was not supported by the district’s school administrators. Said Harris, “We don’t believe in a message, for instance, that [says] a gun is OK as long as you have a parent around.”
In addition to promoting Eddie Eagle for elementary school children that year in Florida, the NRA was simultaneously advocating on-campus, after-school target practice classes that would teach junior and high school students how to shoot rifles, shotguns, and handguns. Commenting on the NRA’s actions, then-Florida Education Commissioner Betty Castor criticized the organization, noting,”I just don’t think schools are an appropriate place for that.”24
The Dade County school board eventually rejected the Eddie Eagle materials and approved funding for a gun violence prevention program designed by the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence (CPHV).u Soon after, however, Hammer was successful in securing a county mandate to have Eddie Eagle taught alongside the CPHV program in Dade County public schools.
And while the NRA was eventually successful in Dade County, other cities were less receptive to the organization’s overtures that year. In the fall of 1988 the NRA urged adoption of the Eddie Eagle program in Chicago schools after an 11-year-old girl was accidently injured by a revolver her playmates had found in a schoolyard bush. The idea was widely criticized by educators and law enforcement officials. As Chicago Police Department Deputy Superintendent Joseph DiLeonardi told the Chicago Tribune, “We will not sit back and see this garbage given to our children. This will not be tolerated and condoned by the Chicago Police Department….It’s sickening to inject this type of garbage into the minds of our youngsters. It’s a disgrace.”25
“A Political Tool”
In the 10 years since Eddie Eagle’s inception, the NRA has modified its strategy of how to place the program in public schools. While the NRA has continued to promote the Eddie Eagle program on the local school board level, the organization has focused its efforts where its political clout is greatest: state legislatures. Nationwide the NRA has lobbied for state resolutions endorsing the program for use in public schools or mandates requiring it. Since 1993 Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Texas, Washington, and West Virginia have passed resolutions endorsing use of the Eddie Eagle program in public schools.v All of the measures list the Eddie Eagle program and the National Rifle Association by name.w And in 1995 North Carolina legislators passed a law encouraging the State Board of Education to promote “gun safety education programs,” such as Eddie Eagle, in elementary schools in the state.
And just as Marion Hammer attempted to do in 1988 in Florida, the National Rifle Association continues to use Eddie Eagle as a tool in its efforts to derail the passage of child access prevention (CAP) and mandatory trigger lock laws—on both the state and federal levels. For example, in February 1997 in the Indiana General Assembly, the organization was successful in killing a child access prevention law with an amendment replacing the original bill with a mandate calling for a statewide Eddie Eagle program. The synopsis of the original bill stated that it would make it:
a Class A infraction for an adult to knowingly, intentionally, recklessly, or negligently store or leave a loaded handgun or an unloaded handgun that is accompanied by ammunition in a location where the adult knows or should reasonably know that an unsupervised child is likely to gain access to the handgun if: (1) a child gains access to the handgun; and (2) the child violates the law concerning carrying a handgun without a license or uses the handgun to cause bodily injury to the child or to another person.
Before floor debate on the original bill could begin, an NRA-backed amendment was approved without debate. The NRA-backed amendment:
recognize[d] the many excellent accomplishments of the Eddie Eagle program; and…in view of the great need for the lessons that are taught, encourage[d] the use of the Eddie Eagle Gun Safety Program and other National Rifle Association firearm safety education programs in the Indiana school system to help prevent firearm accidents among children.
As a result of the NRA amendment, the CAP bill died. According to Amy Friedman, a member of the Indianapolis SAFE KIDS Coalition and a supporter of the original bill:
The Eddie Eagle amendment was used as a political tool to prevent debate of the CAP bill from occurring in the Indiana House of Representatives. The original CAP bill would have placed the responsibility for safe storage of handguns on the adult owner. The NRA-backed amendment relieved the owner of the obligation to properly store handguns and instead mandated Eddie Eagle classes for Indiana schoolchildren. By recommending gun safety classes for children instead of requiring safe storage of handguns, the burden of safety was inappropriately placed on the children themselves.
Three months later, the NRA once again enlisted Eddie Eagle in an attempt to kill child safety legislation, this time in the U.S. Congress. In May 1997 the NRA placed full-page ads in two publications influential on Capitol Hill, Roll Call and CQ Monitor. The ads attacked legislation that would require that all handguns sold by gun dealers be sold with trigger locks. The full-page ads were timed to coincide with expected committee action on the trigger lock proposal. The ads featured Eddie Eagle, “the Mascot of the NRA’s award-winning child safety program, which received the National Safety Council’s Silver Award of Merit in 1995.” It warned that “trigger locks can be quite dangerous” and attacked proposed laws such as the trigger lock bill as “`one-size-fits-all’ government mandates.” The answer, the ad stated, was in “education and training” programs like Eddie Eagle.
The NRA’s citation of the National Safety Council award garnered a quick rebuke from that organization, which had previously written to the NRA and requested that it stop using the award as an endorsement. In a May 30, 1997 letter to Marion Hammer, National Safety Council President Gerard F. Scannell wrote:
It has come to the attention of the National Safety Council that, inappropriately and without authorization, your organization has cited an award by the Council’s Youth Activities Division for your Eddie Eagle Gun Safety Program in connection with your lobbying efforts against a bill to require trigger lock safety devices on guns. Be advised that the National Safety Council emphatically believes that public education alone is not a sufficient means to address the incidence of death and injury from firearms….We therefore request that the National Rifle Association immediately cease making reference to the National Safety Council or our youth safety award to the Eddie Eagle program in your promotional or lobbying efforts.
Research by the Violence Policy Center reveals that the National Safety Council is not the only organization that has found its name being inappropriately used by the NRA in its promotional or lobbying efforts involving Eddie Eagle. Recognizing the concern that many have regarding the motives behind an NRA-designed “gun safety” program, the NRA has attempted to use the good reputation of other organizations in its attempts to attain credibility for the Eddie Eagle program. For a detailed discussion of how the NRA has misled the public and policymakers by citing bogus endorsements from various organizations, please see Appendix Two.
t) At the NRA’s 1997 annual meeting in Seattle, Washington a faction attempting to oust NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre revealed that the Unified Sportsmen of Florida receives an annual grant of $130,000 from the NRA.
u) The Center to Prevent Handgun Violence (CPHV) is the 501(c)(3) public education arm of Handgun Control, Inc. The Center describes itself as “the education, legal advocacy, research and entertainment outreach” affiliate of Handgun Control, Inc. (HCI). CPHV’s 1994 revenue totaled nearly $2.8 million.
v) Massachusetts, Oklahoma, and Vermont have endorsed Eddie Eagle through proclamations, and Utah has endorsed Eddie Eagle through a declaration. These endorsements designate the state to devote a period of time—from one day to an entire month—for gun safety awareness. Copies of the resolutions are available from the VPC.
w) The Proclamation for the state of Oklahoma states that “this [gun safety] education is the key to safety and that Eddie Eagle is a vital life saving message.” The Texas resolution states that “participating children receive certificates of merit and stickers and posters of Eddie Eagle, the program’s lovable feathered mascot, in addition to invaluable training that could save a life.” The Georgia House of Representatives resolution tells members of the state Assembly to “encourage the promotion of the National Rifle Association’s Eddie Eagle Gun Safety Program to help prevent firearms related accidents and commend the National Rifle Association for its diligence and service in developing this program and making it available for use in our communities.”