In September 2014, the University of Oklahoma School of Education received a call from Ackerman McQueen, an advertising and public relations agency based in the state. The firm had a vague query: Does the department have any specialists who might be interested in working with one of its clients on a gun safety curriculum for children?
The message was forwarded to Lisa Monroe, an early childhood education specialist at the university, who followed up over the phone. It was then she learned that Ackerman’s client was the National Rifle Association.
The organization wanted to revamp the curriculum of its Eddie Eagle GunSafe program, which features a cartoon bird that teaches children between the ages of four and ten what to do when they discover a gun: “Stop! Don’t touch. Run away. Tell a grownup.”
“I didn’t see anything wrong with it,” Monroe tells The Trace. “This was about safety and seemed fun.”
She took the assignment. But she didn’t realize, Monroe says now, that the NRA champions Eddie Eagle as a superior alternative to negligent storage legislation, or laws meant to punish adults when children shoot themselves or someone else with an unsecured gun.
“No one ever told me that’s how the program was going to be used,” she says. “If they I had, I assure you, I wouldn’t have anything to do with it.”
Eddie Eagle was created in the late 1980s by Marion Hammer, the powerful Florida NRA lobbyist who is responsible for notorious laws like “Stand Your Ground.” The NRA promotes the program to elementary schools around the country, and pushes state legislatures to pass laws that require schools to adopt the lesson.
Monroe was tasked with ensuring the curriculum accorded with current teaching practices, which would allow educators to justify using classroom time to espouse the wisdom of the responsible bird. She crafted new discussion questions, for example, and an activity requiring students to write a letter to their parents, telling them what they learned from Eddie Eagle.
“Any number of people who want to sell stuff will enlist academics,” William Mathis, the managing director of the National Education Policy Center, tells The Trace. “It’s an appeal to authority, and a pretty effective one at that.”
On the NRA’s website for Eddie Eagle, visitors are invited to “meet Dr. Lisa Monroe,” who, it says, is the creator of the “program instructor guides.” The description adds that Monroe’s “accolades and accomplishments span more than two decades,” and that, “after a thorough review, she stands behind the Eddie Eagle GunSafe program as something that should be taught in schools.”
The website, however, does not say that the NRA is touting Eddie Eagle as a replacement for negligent storage laws. As The Trace detailed in a feature published Monday, the NRA vigorously opposes state efforts to pass legislation that would hold adults accountable when children use unsecured firearms to injure or kill themselves or someone else.
The organization has lobbied against safe storage measures in California, Delaware, and New Jersey. Earlier this year, while testifying against a safe storage bill in Tennessee, an NRA lobbyist told lawmakers that Eddie Eagle, not new legislation, is the best way “to reduce firearm-related accidents” among children.
Monroe says Eddie Eagle is supposed to be “a discussion-starter.”
She continues: “It’s a way of teaching children, kind of like Barney. In no way should it ever be touted as a replacement for laws, or something that could single-handedly stop a shooting. That’s really misusing the program.”
The NRA claims that Eddie Eagle has reached 28 million children since its inception. But two public health studies show children are generally terrible at resisting unsecured guns, whether they receive the training or not.
“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,” Raymond Miltenberger, a lead author on the two studies, told The Trace earlier this year. “They knew they weren’t supposed to do it, but they went ahead and did it anyway.”
Monroe says gun owners should be held legally responsible for ensuring children cannot access their firearms.
“Accountability rests with the adult,” she says. “I have two handguns I inherited from my father. When there are children in my home, I lock them up in a safe.”
[Photo: Johannes Schmitt-Tegge/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images]