Many were horrified when the video of Philando Castile’s death emerged in early July, and were especially taken aback by the presence of his girlfriend’s 4-year-old daughter in the car watching the scene unfold. Pundits and the public postulated how this young girl would fare after witnessing the lethal result of gun violence, raising broader questions about how America’s youth interacts with guns.

Everyday in the United States, forty-eight children and teens are at the receiving end of a bullet—seven of these die: five are murdered, two from suicide. Of the 310 million guns across the country, one in three are in households that have children and don’t keep their guns locked in secure places. Almost three-quarters of children under age ten know where their parents keep their firearms, and 36 percent admitted handling the weapons.

In terms of accidental shootings, as of May toddlers shot at least one person per week across the United States.

In terms of accidental shootings, as of May toddlers shot at least one person per week across the United States. While schools strive to maintain safe environments for children, it can be difficult with millions of children having access to guns in their households, and the nearly one in five students between the ages of twelve and eighteen carrying firearms at some point themselves.

Though carrying a firearm is, according to the U.S. Supreme Court, a much-established constitutional right, the potential violence and danger guns can cause among children is also a much-established fact.

Yet, there has been a disjointed effort from an education standpoint in tackling the issue of gun violence.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) launched “Eddie the Eagle” as the mascot of the gun accident prevention efforts, local advocacy groups like New Yorkers Against Gun Violence Education Fund have partnered with schools to create programs focussed on discussing gun violence and all it encompasses, and state legislation has attempted to implement gun violence education into curricula. While the “Eddie the Eagle” program may not be as effective as the NRA suggests, longer-term programs that address the intersectionality of gun violence tend to help children better understand and avoid the perils of gun violence plaguing the country.

Eddie the Eagle: Smokey the Bear or Joe Camel with Feathers?

The NRA, a staunch proponent of the “right to bear arms,” established the Eddie Eagle gun safety program with the goal of educating children on what to do if they find a firearm. Though it has reached approximately 27 million pre-kindergarten to fourth grade children, the structure of the program has been rendered very similar to Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE), which a myriad of data found is unsuccessful. There has also been a lack of quality research linking reductions in certain aspects of gun violence among children to the program.

Founded in 1988, the NRA’s gun safety program includes a suggested curriculum, a video featuring the eagle explaining in song how to react to guns, and a website with workbooks and lessons that promote the “Stop! Don’t Touch. Run Away. Tell A Grown-Up” slogan. The association has maintained that the program does not promote gun ownership or use in any way.

Twenty-three states, such as Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Oregon, Nevada, and most recently Missouri, have passed resolutions endorsing the use of Eddie Eagle programs in public schools, where more than 25,000 educators utilize its curriculum. However, the quantity of those who interact with the program may not speak to its quality.

Failing to Learn From History

Research has found that education programs geared toward mitigating public health issues among children that take on a “Just Say No” approach, like DARE and Eddie the Eagle, have been largely unsuccessful. DARE typically involved officers coming into school settings once a week, for about an hour, warning students about the dangers of drug use and emphasizing the benefits of drug-free lifestyles. Studies found that students enrolled in the program were just as likely to use drugs as those who received no form of intervention.

A multitude of research has found that programs are more likely to be effective when they involve extensive interaction between instructors and students, take into account behavioral norms, incorporate role playing and coaching, and last over the span of several years. Yet, Eddie Eagle programs are built on the same, minimal intervention methodology that have been critiqued in DARE.

One of the few studies that have been administered to determine the efficacy of “Just Say No” programs found that children were just as likely to pick up a firearm after Eddie Eagle-type intervention as without.

On their website, they tout the importance of the slogan but fail to address why guns should be avoided—despite studies show that teaching children what to do rather than why to do it will not deter a child from exercising a behavior. One of the few studies that have been administered to determine the efficacy of “Just Say No” programs found that children were just as likely to pick up a firearm after Eddie Eagle-type intervention as without. These programs may also be ineffective because they can lead children to believe carrying and using guns is normative behavior among their peers.

There has also been a lack of concrete data showing a causal link between Eddie Eagle programs and decreased gun use among children. Proponents tout that there has been an 80 percent reduction in fatal firearm accidents in the programs’ targeted age group since its inception, but they fail to acknowledge the existence of other public health measures such as improvements in emergency care that have occurred in this time-frame. Deliberate gun-related violence among this age group and slightly older is also completely unaddressed by Eddie the Eagle.

Despite these finding emerging two decades ago, implementation of these programs have continued—leaving demand for an alternative approach.

Education Is Not a Replacement for Legislation

While education regarding gun violence is an element of the issue that requires rethinking, experts and lawmakers must be wary in ensuring education is not seen as a replacement for legislation surrounding gun violence.

When the NRA first launched the Eddie Eagle education program, Children Access Prevention (CAP) laws were popping up across state Legislatures as a response to high-profile accidental gun shootings that took place in Florida in the mid-1980s. The strictest of CAP laws subjects adults to criminal penalties if a minor gains access to a negligently stored firearms, and the more lenient prohibit adults from directly providing firearms to a minor.

Marion Hammer, NRA President at the time, maintained it would be more effective to teach children to change their behavior rather than holding adults responsible after the fact. Though the CAP laws passed and are now active in twenty-eight states, Eddie the Eagle was also born.

As recently as late March, a Tennessee House committee struck down a law that would have made it a crime to leave a loaded firearm unattended in the presence of a 13-year-old girl after an 8-year-old girl was shot by her 11-year-old neighbor in the state. The NRA came out against the potential bill, and maintained that:

“If anti-gun legislators were serious about keeping kids safe, they would know that the key to reducing firearm accidents isn’t about prosecuting after the fact, it’s about educating children and parents about the safe use of firearms.”

The association then offers Eddie Eagle programs as a way to educate these children and parents, despite quantitative examples of its overall faults.

Last year, South Carolina legislators drafted a bill that would have mandated three weeks of the school year to this program. Though the bill failed, the widespread use of the program today and the recent legislative efforts to expand it even further demonstrates an attempt to disguise an important tool like education as a replacement of gun laws.

Recommendations: DARE to Be Different

There are a number of programs on a local level that attempt to incorporate gun violence into curricula, creating environments for students to openly discuss their experiences with guns in a more meaningful and effective way.

New Yorkers Against Gun Violence (NYAGV) Youth Program is one such example. This program, which spans over the course of one year, uses the space and time to educate public school students on the potential outcomes of gun violence and discusses why and how guns should be addressed. Emphasizing the many components that intersect at gun violence—peer pressure, external societal norms, and behavior toward community members, it has been shown to reduce the belief that guns should be turned to first when seeking protection. The group also incorporates discussion surrounding the more widespread problem of weaponized violence in schools overall.

high school students who report carrying weapons by race and hispanic origin
Graphic by Child Trends Data Bank

Many people express frustration with the partisan nature of gun violence, and insist that there is nothing to be done on an individual level to push back against the public health issue that is plaguing the country. Stepping up in communities, teaching children gun safety and the perils of gun violence from a young age, and standing against band-aid “solutions” like the Eddie Eagle program can deter the avoidable and tragic tales surrounding gun violence.