Local elementary schools must follow NRA's Eddie Eagle program

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 As of July 1, any public elementary school in Virginia that opts to teach gun safety will need to know the name of Eddie Eagle, 22-year-old mascot of the National Rifle Association’s GunSafe Program. However, at least one school in Albemarle County has known his name for years.

The General Assembly recently approved a version of House Bill 1217, which allows local school boards to offer gun safety programs in elementary schools so long as they reinforce the policies of the NRA program—namely, Eddie’s mantra of “Stop! Don’t touch. Leave the area. Tell an adult.” 

A few days before the bill was approved, Eddie Eagle landed at Yancey Elementary School for a firearm safety presentation to an estimated 80 students. Each presentation includes a seven-minute animated video and a workbook that instructs kids to follow Eddie’s advice; save the eagle mascot and a copyright mention on the book, there is no mention of the NRA in the materials.

“I think people hear the word ‘guns’ and they think only of bad things,” says Frank Moore, a reserve officer with the Albemarle County Sheriff’s Office and coordinator of the program. “But we teach kids to be safe with matches, electricity, household chemicals and everything else. And this is the approach the Eddie Eagle program takes.”

To the dismay of some, Eddie’s approach is the one singled out in the bill. A previous version of the bill was to include material from the National Crime Prevention Center, in what now seems like a classic example of a fudged acronym. (The National Crime Prevention Council is the organization behind McGruff the Crime Dog.) Governor Bob McDonnell, whose gubernatorial campaign received more than $600,000 in support from the NRA’s Political Victory Fund, removed mention of the NCPC before the bill was returned to the General Assembly and approved.

Eddie has been present in Albemarle County for a few years, if not active. County Sheriff Chip Harding says that Eddie visits schools and civic groups like the Boy Scouts upon request, although “that hasn’t been very frequent.

“I believe in it, and we want to make it available to groups and the school system if they desire to have it,” says Harding. “And as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t have anything to do with the NRA, other than they furnish materials to us and design the program.” (However, the Albemarle County Sheriff’s Office does have its own Eddie Eagle costume, priced by the NRA at $2,650.)

In fact, Yancey Elementary School is the only elementary in the county to take part in the program so far, according to Maury Brown, communications coordinator for Albemarle County Public Schools.

Eddie Eagle (left) waves with Albemarle County Sheriff Chip Harding during the Dogwood Festival parade. With a new bill on the books, any local elementary school that teaches gun safety will abide by Eddie’s rules.

“There is no division-level gun safety curriculum at this time. We don’t have any directive or standard that would require schools to offer a gun safety curriculum,” says Brown. “Some schools may decide they have more need for gun safety curriculum. Certainly gun safety is an important topic.”

And Eddie Eagle’s work with Yancey students has been limited to Club Yancey, an afterschool program based at the Esmont school. Club Yancey is funded by a 21st Century Community Learning Centers Grant, awarded in 2007 and totaling $163,177. As part of the grant, Yancey partners with community organizations for programs, including the Department of Parks and Recreation and the sheriff’s office. Eddie has visited the program annually for the last three or four years.

Principal Alison Dwier-Selden says that all Club Yancey students attend the Eddie Eagle presentation, and calls the program “very kid-friendly.

“We have a lot of hunting down here, so it works out quite well, to be honest,” she says.

Asked about parent responses to the presentations, Dwier-Selden says she has not been privilege to any feedback, positive or negative. “I know there hasn’t been any negative feedback because you always hear that first,” she says. 

As for response to the bill itself, a few groups called for input from organizations besides the NRA. A member of Virginians for Public Safety told the Washington Post that “it should not be the exclusive domain of the gun lobby to supply the material” to elementary schools. However, reserve officer Moore—also an NRA-certified firearms training councilor and home firearm safety instructor—says the Eddie Eagle program has been compared to other gun safety courses and “found to be the best.

“And that’s why most of these governors and state legislators have supported it,” says Moore. “It’s really not important who gets the message across as long as the message gets out there.”

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