BANGOR, Maine — A legislative committee on Thursday voted against a bill that urged gun safety education programs be taught to elementary school students, but stressed that schools are free to set up such programs if they want.
The bill, LD 128, would require the state Board of Education to develop a “standardized” firearm safety education program for elementary school students, which local school boards could adopt if parents and residents want it offered. The bill’s sponsor stressed that setting up such a program would not be required or expected of any school district that doesn’t have an interest.
The Legislature’s Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs voted unanimously that the bill “ought not to pass” when it goes before the full Legislature. Still, the committee added, if any school districts are interested in teaching children what to do if they come in contact with a gun, or run into any other potentially dangerous situation — go for it.
“Our children routinely see unsafe and irresponsible gun handling on television and movies,” bill sponsor Rep. John Picchiotti, R-Fairfield, said in his testimony to the committee. “This is a great opportunity to teach our children that real guns are not toys.”
The National Rifle Association has the Eddie Eagle Gunsafe Program, which uses an eagle mascot to teach students four “steps” to gun safety: “Stop. Don’t touch. Leave the area. Tell an adult.” Maine schools could draw inspiration from that, or even sign on to participate in that particular program, according to Picchiotti. The NRA says its course has been taught to more than 26 million children nationally since it began in 1988.
No weapons are involved in the Eddie Eagle training. The mascot never touches or shows a firearm during the course, which incorporates workbooks, an animated DVD, brochures and reward stickers. Students aren’t taught how to handle a firearm, they’re taught how to stay away.
It’s not clear how many Maine schools, if any, currently offer such safety courses. According to the NRA, members of the Maine Legislature recognized the Eddie Eagle program in 2008 on the 20th anniversary of its providing gun safety education to children in pre-kindergarten through third grade.
Fairfield resident Robert Sezak told the committee that Central Maine Friends of the NRA raises funds for youth gun education and would issue funding to interested schools through a grant application process.
“Knowledge of the dangers of firearms and respect of those dangers through early education is the best policy to ensure firearms safety,” he argued.
The Maine Education Association backed the bill because it gave school districts the right to determine whether they need a firearm safety program, not as an expression of its views on the right to carry or use firearms.
“We feed our students, we nurture our students, we assure our students they are important, we love our students, and we protect our students from the things and people that could do them harm, guns being one,” MEA President Lois Kilby-Chesley said adding that gun safety training has become a “community job.”
The state Department of Education neither backed nor opposed the proposal, saying it recognized the importance of gun safety, but also believes that there should be local authority over the content within the gun safety course, according to Jaci Holmes of the department. That local authority exists with or without the proposed bill.
Maine School Management Association opposed the bill arguing that it didn’t believe gun safety should fall under the purview of public schools. Other groups, such as the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, local rod and gun clubs or even L.L. Bean might be more appropriate to provide training to children.
A similar bill that would have required gun safety training in Maine high schools was voted down in 2013.
Other states have adopted or considered laws to allow schools to teach gun safety. Many of those turned to the Eddie Eagle program, and a few sought to mandate participation.
A South Carolina lawmaker has proposed a bill that would require public school education on the Second Amendment and gun safety.
In the past two years Wisconsin, Oregon, and New York legislatures have tried to pass bills that would have made Eddie Eagle a mandatory part of the school curriculum. None of the bills were successful.
Opponents of Eddie Eagle argue it “glamorizes” guns and gun ownership, while the NRA argues that Eddie never holds a gun and is not meant to promote gun ownership or tell students that guns are “good or bad.”
Missouri adopted the Eddie Eagle program as an option for first-graders in its school districts in 2013. Virginia enacted a law in 2010 allowing gun safety courses based on the program.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter @nmccrea213.