Why the NRA's Repackaged Eddie Eagle Program Still Doesn't Reach Kids

Margie Sanfilippo, Ph.D

Eddie Eagle has gotten a make-over.

Eddie Eagle is the NRA’s mascot for gun safety for children. A cartoon character (now digitized), he and his friends, the Wing Team, sing a simple tune whenever they see a gun: “Stop! Don’t touch! Run away! Tell a grown-up!”

So glad to see that they have updated their jingle—because now that “leave the area” has become “run away,” and “adult” has become “grown-up,” I’m sure the program will work much better than has been demonstrated in the past.

In 1996, I published a paper describing my research in which children were taught exactly what Eddie teaches—to get an adult when they come across a gun. The children were great at singing the jingle, and they loved coloring pictures of Eddie. More than that, though, they loved playing with the gun when they found it.

The results were replicated in 1999 on ABC’s 20/20 with Diane Sawyer, and again in 2014 on the same show. Time after time, children taught to stay away from the guns did the opposite—and they did so by looking down the barrel and shooting each other. In other words, they did exactly what we would expect curious and impulsive children to do when they encounter a gun—pick it up and use it.

After all, we hear about it day after day: A five-year-old boy shoots his two-year-old sister with his new Cricket rifle (made just for children). A four-year-old boy shoots and kills his six-year-old friend with a .22 caliber rifle that he found in his home. A five-year-old boy shoots and kills himself with his babysitter’s semi-automatic .40 caliber pistol, which she had left on the coffee table while she napped.

The new Eddie Eagle program comes complete with a website (for “grown-ups”), where parents and educators can learn more about gun safety—within limits. For example, although the parent page does make a small step forward in suggesting the parents ask other parents if there are guns in their home, parents are NOT told that the best way to keep their children safe is to lock up guns and ammunition separately.

On the website, the NRA asserts that the Eddie Eagle program “makes no value judgments about firearms,” yet describes guns as “part of everyday life. . . like swimming pools, electrical outlets, & matchbooks.” The NRA fails to mention, of course, that guns are far more lethal than these other everyday objects, and that children are routinely protected from pools by fences, outlets by outlet covers, and matches by parents keeping them out of reach—not by teaching children a jingle about running away and getting a grown-up.

The FAQ page of the redesigned Eddie Eagle program addresses whether or not the program has been evaluated, providing anecdotes, reviews, awards, and correlational findings. For example, they cite the 80 percent decrease in gun deaths among children since the program’s inception in 1988. But what they don’t say is that during that same time, there have been improvements in emergency care, changes in gun laws, and a decrease in the number of homes with guns. And of course, they don’t mention the 362 firearm-related deaths in 2010 (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) for children ages 1-14 (of which 62 were unintentional and 81 were suicides).

Fewer deaths—sure, that is progress. But each of those 362 deaths could have been prevented—if parents had taken their responsibilities as seriously as they take their rights. Not if the children had watched an eight-minute video. (And who knows, maybe they did see the video, since it has reached more than 28 million children, according to the NRA website.) Perhaps not surprisingly, the NRA fails to mention any of the peer-reviewed, empirical research—including my own—that demonstrates again and again the ineffectiveness of child-focused gun safety programs.

Finally, the NRA asserts that because Eddie Eagle and his friends don’t touch the gun, there is “no promotion of firearm ownership or use,” yet the video depicts a number of scenarios in which guns are present—including a mother carrying a concealed weapon in her purse.

No, Eddie doesn’t touch a gun, but maybe his mom and dad have one. Maybe Mom carries one in her purse—I bet he can’t wait to find out (but better wait until Mom isn’t looking!). And when he’s a grown-up, he can get a gun, too. After all, they’re as common as swimming pools, outlets, and matchbook covers.

My review of the snazzy new Eddie Eagle gun safety program? It hasn’t changed in its message, and I’m sure it hasn’t changed in its ineffectiveness. Some things never change—like the lethality of guns in the hands of curious and impulsive children.

June 21 is National ASK (Asking Saves Kids) Day. For tips on starting a conversation about whether there is an unlocked gun where your child plays, check out the ASK Toolkit. And check out AskingSavesKids.org you want to learn how to host an ASK playdate in your neighborhood on Father’s Day, or participate in ASK events in Brooklyn, NY; Boston; Washington, D.C.; Williston, SC; or Los Angeles.

Margie Sanfilippo, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.