In late March, a Tennessee House committee defeated “MaKayla’s Law,” a bill that would have made it a crime to leave a loaded firearm unattended and readily accessible to a child under 13 years of age. The legislation was named after MaKayla Dyer, an eight-year-old girl who was fatally shot by an 11-year-old neighbor in the hamlet of White Pine. Before the shooting, MaKayla had refused to let the boy play with her new puppy. That’s when he went to an unlocked closet, retrieved a loaded shotgun, pointed it through a window at her, and pulled the trigger.
As lawmakers in Nashville considered the measure, the National Rifle Association emerged as one of its most outspoken opponents. “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,” reads an alert issued by the NRA-ILA, the group’s lobbying arm. “It’s about educating children and parents about the safe use of firearms.” The message continues with a plug for the Eddie Eagle program, a curriculum developed by the NRA to educate children on gun safety. The program teaches kids four simple commands on how to react if they ever find a gun unsupervised: Stop. Don’t touch. Run away. Tell a grown-up.
The NRA has touted Eddie Eagle as an alternative to child access prevention legislation since the late 1980s, when a rash of accidental shootings in Florida inspired the first such law. The group claims the program has helped lead to an 80 percent reduction in fatal firearms accidents involving children. But research paints a much different picture: Two separate studies of Eddie Eagle, both published by Pediatrics in 2004, found that the program is ineffective at teaching children how to safely respond to an unsupervised firearm in a real-life situation.
“A lot of researchers have shown that parents will say, ‘Yes, my child will do the right thing,’” Dr. Raymond Miltenberger, one of the lead authors of both studies, tells The Trace. “But then when they’re tested, that kid will touch the gun.”
Miltenberger and his colleagues tested the Eddie Eagle program on four- and five-year-olds and six- and seven-year-olds. In both studies, they divided the children into three groups: a control group, which received no gun safety training; a group taught with the Eddie Eagle program; and a final group which received behavioral skills training, or BST, a method that when applied to firearms emphasizes repeated rehearsal of gun-discovery situations coupled with praise and corrective feedback. Administrators then evaluated the kids in all three groups with a series of tests.
The first assessment was designed to mimic a real-life encounter with a gun. Either at home or at their school, each child was guided into a situation where they would organically “discover” a disabled, unloaded gun and be tested on how well they responded. (In most of the at-home tests, for example, an experimenter would meet the parents in one room of the house while the child was sent to the kitchen for a snack, where he or she would find a gun on the table.) In the second test, the kids were asked to “role play” finding a gun in front of the researchers, again using a real, disabled firearm. In the final test, experimenters quizzed the kids about how they’d handle various hypotheticals — asking them to imagine finding a gun on their parents’ bed, for instance — and recorded their responses.
The results show that children with BST training were the most likely to avoid touching firearms, while those with no training fared the worst. The group of children who had received five sessions of Eddie Eagle scored slightly better than those without, but still fared poorly at gun safety.
When experimenters asked those children how they would respond to hypothetical situations, both preschoolers and six- to seven-year-olds who had been trained with the Eddie Eagle program said they would leave the area and not touch the gun. But those weren’t always the actions they took when confronting an actual gun in the other experiments. In the role play assessments — during which they were supervised by a researcher — many of the children who received Eddie Eagle training failed to respond safely after they “found” a firearm in the room. Most of the six- and seven-year-olds who’d gone through the NRA’s curriculum were able to resist picking up the gun alone and left the area. But the four- and five-year-olds consistently stayed in the room, even as they were able to verbalize what they should have done. The children’s behavior grew even riskier in the in situ tests placing them alone with a firearm. Among the four- to five-year-olds in the study, only one of the 11 children was able to apply the lessons of Eddie Eagle. Similarly, in the second study of six- to seven-year-olds, only two of 15 steered clear of the unsecured gun.
“We had kids who pointed the gun at themselves or pulled the trigger,” Miltenberger says. “Some kids would see the gun, go to the door to check if anybody was watching, and then go back and pick up the gun. They knew they weren’t supposed to do it, but they went ahead and did it anyway.”
Miltenberger says there’s a big difference between a child being able to talk about safety measures and actually being able to perform them. He concludes that the most effective way to teach children about gun safety is with behavioral skills training coupled with on-the-spot training. In other words, if a child still doesn’t respond safely when he or she finds a gun during an in situ test, the researcher has to catch the kid in the act of touching the gun and make him or her practice on the spot.
But Miltenberg also believes that gun safety protocols should not place the onus on children to make the right decisions. A better system makes adults responsible for keeping firearms out of young hands. Skills training will never be 100 percent reliable, he notes — the safest option is always to store firearms, unloaded, in a locked gun cabinet.
In the face of the research findings, the gun group has spent years discrediting child access prevention laws and pushing the Eddie Eagle program in their stead. The gun group has claimed that deaths from unintentional shootings are at a record low, making safe storage laws unnecessary. Experts estimate that roughly 110 children died in unintentional shootings from 2005 to 2012. By international standards, that’s a staggering rate: American children younger than 15 are nine times more likely to die by gun accident than children in other developed countries.