A Republican bill that would require a National Rifle Association gun safety course for Arizona middle and high school students is now one vote away from Gov. Doug Ducey’s desk.
The measure would require all Arizona schools to teach students about firearms safety at least once between sixth grade and the end of high school.
Prescott Valley Republican Rep. Quang Nguyen, the measure’s sponsor, said creating the Arizona Gun Safety Program would help prevent accidental gun deaths among children. The legislation prevents instruction that would teach children how to fire guns or hunt.
“This bill does not put guns in the hands of students,” Nguyen told the Senate Education Committee Tuesday afternoon about House Bill 2448. Nguyen works as a volunteer coach for the Arizona Scorpions Junior High-Power Rifle team and also serves as president of the Arizona State Rifle and Pistol Association.
In previous testimony when the bill was considered by the House of Representatives, Nguyen said that no NRA material would be distributed, though the language of the bill and a new amendment positions the NRA’s “Eddie Eagle” program as the sole gun safety program to be used by schools.
The NRA created “Eddie Eagle,” an animated anthropomorphic eagle who teaches gun safety alongside his “wing team,” in 1988. Its use is mandated in schools in North Carolina and Oregon.
The “Eddie Eagle” instruction is designed for younger children — generally between preschool and third grade.
The program was deemed largely ineffective in real-world scenarios by the American Academy of Pediatrics and some critics have argued that the program is an attempt to “lure” kids towards gun culture.
A report by gun violence prevention group the Violence Policy Center points out that the program itself actually was created because of Florida legislation that would have subjected parents to penalties if they store a firearm in a manner that led to a child’s death or injury.
Since the program’s inception, it has seen a rapid decline in the number of children utilizing it.
Sens. Tyler Pace, R-Mesa, and Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix, both questioned what other programs would be able to taught and who could teach them, citing an amendment that requires that any training program has been “in operation for over 30 years” and was “developed by a task force made up of educators, school administrators, curriculum specialists, urban housing safety officials, clinical psychologists, law enforcement officials and firearm safety experts from the National Rifle Association.”
The language is taken directly from the EddieEagle.com website and the program has been in operation for over 30 years.
Nguyen said during the committee Tuesday that the Arizona State Rifle and Pistol Association, which is also an official state association of the NRA and receives donations from the organization, could teach the program along with retired law enforcement.
Nguyen also said that the curriculum would be focused on “stop, don’t touch, run away, tell an adult,” the exact phrase used by Eddie Eagle in NRA training materials. The lawmaker also argued that the education did not work on younger children, as younger children are more prone to forget. He said he believed the messaging would resonate better with older children.
“I feel that gun responsibility should be solely on adults for keeping children safe,” Shawnique Cotton, a survivor of gun violence, told the committee. “Keeping Arizonans safe should lie on you, the legislators, to pass common-sense gun legislation”
Michael Infanzon of the Arizona Citizens Defense League, a hard-line gun-rights advocacy group, said the bill is “based” upon the Eddie Eagle program but wouldn’t be a full-fledged Eddie Eagle program.
“You have to start somewhere. Why reinvent the wheel?” Infanzon said, comparing the course to sex education programs that parents can choose to opt their child out of.
“I don’t think that this is a mandate that is necessary,” Sen. Theresa Hatathlie, D-Coal Mine Canyon, said, adding that current state law allows for bow, gun safety and hunting classes in schools at the parent’s choice, taught by the Arizona Department of Game and Fish.
Pace expressed concern that the bill was written to only allow NRA training. He also said the legislation didn’t expressly prohibit someone from “donating” a firearm to a training class to be used for demonstrations. Still, he said he would work with Nguyen on possible floor amendments and voted yes to let the bill clear the committee.
Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, said gun control advocates opposing the bill would prefer to totally ignore that guns exist instead of looking for ways to educate children about the risks, and how to stay safe.
“It is almost like we want to wage a War on Drugs-style campaign on guns and pretend they don’t exist or that maybe they should go away. I don’t think that worked well on the War on Drugs,” Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge said, adding that he believes there is a fundamental misunderstanding between critics of guns and those who support gun rights.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, addressed the concerns that his Democratic colleagues had addressed that the bill was a “mandate” on curriculum, saying that he was concerned about that. Boyer, a high school teacher, called it “legitimate criticism,” but said it didn’t negate the benefits of the bill.
“The good outweighs any time that would be taken away from classroom instruction,” Boyer said while explaining why he put the bill on the committee’s agenda, adding that he felt the way the education would be done would be “non-invasive.”
The bill passed out of committee along party lines and will head to the full Senate for a vote.