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Guns in hands of children

  • Graphic by David W. Rowe/TIMES NEWS
    Graphic by David W. Rowe/TIMES NEWS
Published January 06. 2014 05:01PM

On Christmas Day, a 10-year-old boy in Memphis, Tenn., accidentally shot his brother as the two were playing with a relative's handgun.

Five days earlier, a 3-year-old Arizona boy shot himself in the face while playing with a parent's gun.

In Pennsylvania, where 34 children under the age of 14 were injured by guns in 2011, a state lawmaker aims to protect children by allowing school boards to include lessons on firearm safety.

While the state Department of Education appears to support Sen. Vanessa Lowery-Brown's bill, it's drawing fire from a gun control group.

Brown, D-Philadelphia, introduced HB 1408 on May 16. The bill would allow, but not require, school boards to include gun safety classes in kindergarten through eighth grade. The Department of Education would work with state police to develop the curriculum, and children would not be required to take the classes.

"The prevalence of accidental gun deaths, particularly among children, is what prompted me to introduce this measure. With more than 7,500 children a year being hospitalized for gunshot wounds, 500 of which are fatally wounded, the need to educate our youth on how they need to respond should they encounter a firearm remains paramount in our society," she said.

Brown's bill mentions the National Rifle Association's Eddie Eagle gun safety program as an example. She is not an NRA member.

The state Department of Education is on board with the bill.

"The safety of all students is a top priority of the department. The department continues to work through its Office for Safe Schools to assist schools in becoming as safe as possible for our students. This legislation is in line with that objective and the department looks forward to working with the sponsor to give our schools the necessary resources to incorporate into their safety plans, if they choose to use them," press secretary Tim Eller said.

The bill is now in the House Education Committee.

Making sense

"The option to include firearm safety in our schools likely will not be embraced by all schools, but for those that do so, appropriate information will be provided," said committee member Rep. Mike Carroll, D-Luzerne/Monroe.

Teaching gun safety to children makes sense, Brown said.

"Despite the familiar saying of 'ignorance is bliss', when it comes to our children, and protecting them from the innumerable potential dangers that confront them on a daily basis, knowledge is power," she said.

"While the number of accidental gun deaths has gradually declined over the years, the fact of the matter remains that more can be done in the way of effectively eradicating this problem. I truly believe that the Eddie Eagle GunSafe program has played a significant role in bringing about this decline, and I anxiously look forward to enabling our school districts to utilize this program for the purpose of further reducing the number of accidental gun deaths among our children," Brown said.

The Pathstone Carbon County HeadStart program teaches the Eddie Eagle program, program administrator Jeanette Triano said.

"The Eddie Eagle GunSafe Program teaches children important steps to take if they find a gun and what to do," she said.

Pros and cons

The proposal worries a gun control advocacy group.

"CeaseFirePA supports efforts to teach nonviolence and to promote firearms safety," said Executive Director Shira Goodman. "However, we have serious concerns about this bill, which we have shared with Rep. Brown and the members of the Education Committee. There are serious studies demonstrating that this type of curriculum does not work, and in some cases makes kids more likely to touch guns when they see them."

In particular, CeaseFirePA takes issue with the Eddie Eagle program.

"There are so many good anti-violence programs available, including Cradle to Grave through Temple University Hospital, and others through various national organizations, that we are shocked that this bill specifically recommends incorporating the NRA curriculum," Goodman said.

"Given the many needs of our schools, especially here in Philadelphia, we are concerned that this bill will not prevent or reduce gun violence and could divert resources from better programs."

The National Rifle Association did not respond to requests for comments.

One local school board president said he'd approach the matter cautiously.

"We need to do everything possible to maximize the safety of our students and I am for any program that will do that. If teaching gun safety to our children accomplishes that end, then I support it. However, my support is dependent upon how the program is structured, the content thereof, and who teaches our students," said Jim Thorpe school board President Clem McGinley.

"The views of the extreme sides of the issue should be avoided. I don't want to have a gun-safety curriculum that glorifies or espouses gun use: or one which teaches that guns are totally evil or should be banned," he said.

McGinley said the best person to teach such a course would be a local or state police officer. He also believes that school boards should seek the opinions of parents and students, and that a course would have to be optional for students.

Saving even one life

Brown disputes arguments against the bill.

"One of the most alarming and disconcerting arguments in opposition to this bill that I have heard is that informational training programs are ineffective in that they allegedly create a curiosity in children to touch or play with firearms that they encounter. To me, this is akin to saying we should not preemptively inform an infant not to stick a butter knife in an electrical outlet or touch the burner of a stove, lest we make them curious about doing so," she said.

"In terms of the advantages that are to be gained by enabling our school districts to avail themselves of this program, the benefits are self-explanatory. I would not assert that this program will eradicate the problem of accidental gun deaths among children in our commonwealth; however, as long as it results in potentially saving one child's life and sparing one family the heartache of senselessly losing a child, then this certainly is a program worth exploring," Brown said.

What works and what doesn't

However, a 2012 article in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics contends childhood gun safety programs may backfire.

"Gun avoidance programs are designed to educate children as a way of reducing firearm injury (such as Eddie Eagle, STAR); however, several evaluation studies have demonstrated that such programs do not prevent risk behaviors, and may even increase gun handling among children," wrote lead authors M. Denise Dowd and Robert D. Sege.

What works best?

The American Academy of Pediatrics says keeping guns out of the house is most effective means of keeping children safe.

If parents must have guns at home, AAP advises them to keep the firearms and ammunition separate and locked up.

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