The NRA’s Gun Safety Program for Kids Has Imploded
Documents show that participation in the group’s “Eddie Eagle” program dropped 96 percent while NRA execs slashed training and education budgets.
When he was 4 years old, Eli Parker shot himself in the face.
It was April 2002, and Eli was visiting his grandparents in Louisville, Kentucky, with his father and 1-year-old brother after his parents had recently separated. While the younger boy was having his diaper changed, Eli went to look for some children’s books his grandmother set out for him on the headboard of her bed. Sitting on top of the stack of books, was a handgun.
“He knew his dad was preoccupied with his little brother, and he picked it up because he just wanted to look [and] see if he could see what he called a ‘missile,’ which was a bullet,” Haley Parker Rinehart, Eli’s mom, told The Daily Beast. “But...his finger hit the trigger and the gun discharged. The bullet entered the corner of his right eye, [and] exited behind his right ear. And that’s where our story began.”
Eli was rushed to a local hospital, where he underwent emergency surgery. Doctors removed his right eye, taking out his right temporal bone and a portion of his brain’s right temporal lobe in the process. That night, Eli’s brain swelled to dangerous levels. A neurosurgeon woke Rinehart and told her she had no option—she had to sign a form giving doctors permission to operate immediately, or Eli, who was just barely hanging on, would die.
Rinehart said she “had a mental breakdown right there in the hospital. I screamed, I ran down the hall. They chased after me, and this doctor got right up in my face, and stuck his finger in my face. And he told me he was giving me five minutes to choose, and that it would be my decision whether or not my son potentially lived… Obviously, I decided to let them operate.”
Some 20 doctors and nurses worked for hours to save Eli’s life. They were unable to remove several bone fragments from his splintered skull and eye socket without causing further neurological damage beyond what Eli—if he made it—would already have to deal with.
“Even when we were discharged from the hospital a month later, they still didn’t know what the long-term effects would be,” said Rinehart, who was subsequently diagnosed with PTSD, along with both of her sons. “Because most kids with an injury like that, at his age, that they have seen in the past, had not survived it.”
Each year in the United States, roughly 350 children under the age of 17 get access to a firearm and shoot themselves or someone else. About 700 children each year in the U.S. die by suicide using a gun. During the first five months of 2021, an average of 54 people died each day in shootings, an increase from an average of 40 shootings deaths per day over the past six years. According to a Washington Post data analysis published in June, accidental shootings rose by more than 40 percent between 2019 and 2020, with accidental shootings by children up 45 percent. American kids under the age of 15 are nine times more likely to die in an inadvertent shooting than kids elsewhere in the developed world.
For more than three decades, schools across the United States—including the one Rinehart attended as a child as well as the one Eli later attended—have used the National Rifle Association’s “Eddie Eagle” program to teach young kids about gun safety. Launched in 1988, the initiative is aimed at pre-K through fourth graders and features an animated eagle and his anthropomorphic “wing team,” that instruct children who encounter a gun to: “STOP! Don’t touch. Run away. Tell a grown-up.”
According to the NRA, the program, which in addition to schools can be administered by law enforcement agencies and civic groups, has been “honored or endorsed” by the National Sheriffs’ Association, the U.S. Department of Justice (through the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention), and the Association of American Educators. Eddie Eagle has also “received bipartisan support from 26 state governors, as well as resolutions from 23 state legislatures,” the NRA states in its program materials, which further note that “26,000 school teachers and law enforcement officers have taught the Program to over 32 million children.”
Even staunch gun safety advocates like Mark Kelly, Navy combat vet and husband to gun violence survivor and former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords, have spoken favorably of Eddie Eagle. This, claims the NRA, “verifies the popularity of the Program with those who deal with child safety issues every day.”
But the Eddie Eagle program—which was deemed largely ineffective in real-world situations by the American Academy of Pediatrics, among others—has in recent years failed to attain anywhere near that sort of reach.
The NRA has of late found itself embroiled in legal and financial trouble. In 2019, a top NRA donor filed a class action lawsuit in 2019, alleging CEO Wayne LaPierre and other top NRA leaders wrongfully enriched themselves by living large while ignoring the group’s mission. A 2020 lawsuit brought by New York State Attorney General Letitia James accused LaPierre of using the NRA as a “personal piggy bank,” alleging that LaPierre and three NRA executives dug the organization into a $64 million hole over the course of three years “without regard to the NRA’s best interests.” The NRA filed for bankruptcy in January, but a Texas judge dismissed the effort as little more than an attempt to avoid New York state’s effort to hold the group accountable. In a deposition during the NRA’s failed bankruptcy proceedings, LaPierre was forced to admit having borrowed a friend’s 108-foot yacht to hide out from an angry public after at least two mass shootings.
In addition to the NRA’s very survival being at stake, the Eddie Eagle initiative has essentially fallen apart, according to internal NRA documents newly made public during the organization’s recent bankruptcy bid and shared with The Daily Beast by Everytown For Gun Safety, the nonprofit founded in 2013 by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. (Everytown and the nonprofit Moms Demand Action for Gun Safety have their own program, called Be SMART, which is aimed at educating families with school-age children about responsible gun ownership.)
In minutes from several recent board meetings, NRA staffers told board members that Eddie had reached an average of more than a million children per year since its inception. And while this is technically true (32,371,095 averaged over 32 years between 1988 and 2020 yields 1,011,597), a mere 32,000 children were reached by the Eddie Eagle program in 2020, a drop of nearly 95 percent compared to 2019.
The documents show the steep slide wasn’t due to last year’s COVID-19 lockdowns, either: In 2019, Eddie Eagle reached 35 percent fewer children than in 2018. In all, participation dropped 96 percent in 24 months, as the NRA cut funding on “safety, training & education” by $14 million, or more than a third.
“Contrary to what gun control sources may be feeding you, NRA’s Eddie Eagle program is not only doing well but thriving,” NRA spokesman Lars Dalseide told The Daily Beast. “There was an issue with our record keeping maintenance during that time period but that issue has since been corrected.”
Of the NRA’s shrinking expenditures on training and education, Dalseide said, “The irony is these so-called gun safety advocates have no plan and spend zero dollars when it comes to educating either children and adults on gun safety.”
Dalseide said the data regarding Eddie Eagle’s reach was not updated retroactively, and thus could not provide new figures.
Although a far-right evangelical minister in suburban Chicago was the first to use Eddie Eagle in a classroom setting, the concept was hatched in Florida. In the late 1980s, South Florida saw an unexplained spike in child shootings. In 1987, 36 children were shot by other children in Dade County, where Miami is located. In 1988, that number rose to 57. Dade instituted a gun safety program in public schools developed by the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, distributing posters with the (admittedly dubious) slogan, “Just Say No to Guns.”
The program was meant to reframe the discussion on guns, telling parents that having a gun in the home is dangerous for kids, regardless of how conscientious the owner may be.
“Simply put, we are conveying the message that guns are bad—they kill,” James Fleming, Dade’s then-associate superintendent for communications and management services, said at the time.
The NRA offered to provide Florida’s schools with materials from its newly created Eddie Eagle program, but the state’s Board of Education turned the group down. The Eddie Eagle syllabus, according to Fleming, reframed the debate to teach kids that it was “perfectly normal to have a gun in the house.” Tracey Martin, the NRA’s then-national manager of education and training, claimed she was informed by state officials that Eddie Eagle was rejected “because we were not saying that guns were bad or evil.”
“The hard and fast rule is that guns should be inaccessible to untrained and unauthorized people,” Martin told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “But how people do it is up to them.” The debate played out against a political backdrop in which the Florida state assembly was considering a new law that would allow criminal charges to be brought against legal gun owners if they stored their weapons in such a way that a minor would be “likely to gain access” to them. (A 2018 study by the Rand Corporation found that so-called child access prevention laws do reduce unintentional shooting injuries and deaths among children, although the same couldn’t be said for adults).
Marion Hammer, executive director of the Unified Sportsmen of Florida, an NRA-funded pro-gun group, was perhaps the legislation’s most vocal opponent. The solution to child shootings didn’t lie in making guns harder for kids to access, but in educational programs like Eddie Eagle, the NRA and its surrogates insisted. And although her effort to derail the law was unsuccessful, Hammer—who would later serve as president of the NRA and has recently come under scrutiny for financial irregularities—managed to convince Dade County to use the Eddie Eagle program in school districts alongside the one by the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence.
No one answered the phone at Unified Sportsmen of Florida’s listed number. Contacted on her personal cell phone by The Daily Beast, Hammer hung up.
In the years since, the NRA has used the Eddie Eagle program to argue against similar gun safety bills and trigger lock laws in other states, calling each an “intrusive proposal [that] invades people’s homes and forces them to render their firearms useless in a self-defense situation by locking them up.” In Indiana, the NRA helped deep-six a child access prevention law, successfully lobbying for mandatory Eddie Eagle classes for schoolchildren, instead. The NRA’s influence can be witnessed front-and-center: A 2013 Missouri bill encouraging schools to adopt the Eddie Eagle program explicitly states, “School personnel and program instructors must not make value judgments about firearms.”
Reaction to Eddie Eagle by parents and legislators on both sides of the aisle has been mixed.
In April, the GOP-controlled Kansas Senate passed a package of legislation that, among other things, lowered the minimum age for carrying a concealed firearm from 21 to 18, and mandated the Eddie Eagle program for all public school students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
Republican State Rep. Michael Dodson, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general and former commander of Fort Riley in the Flint Hills Region of Kansas, argued against Eddie Eagle.
“I don’t want to mix schools and guns,” Dodson said. “The problem with kids and guns is not the kids. It’s the parents.”
A safe storage amendment proposed by Rep. Jo Ella Hoye, a Democrat and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense volunteer, was swiftly defeated. As a compromise, State Sen. Mary Ware, a Democrat from Wichita, proposed an amendment that would give school districts the choice to opt out of Eddie Eagle and let educators develop their own curricula. The amendment was defeated.
Other state lawmakers have expressed much the same sentiment in years past. Arguing in 2000 that schools should be able to choose their own gun safety programs rather than being forced to go with Eddie Eagle, Maryland State Sen. Barbara Hoffman, a Democrat, said, “The kinds of access to guns that Baltimore City kids have may be very different from the access by kids in Carroll County.”
That the NRA imprimatur is stamped on Eddie Eagle is a non-starter for some. In 2013, the Houston Independent School District canceled a presentation to elementary school students by Eddie Eagle when it discovered the program was part of the NRA. In 2018, parents in Tennessee objected to their children, some of them kindergartners, being given Eddie Eagle handouts at school.
“School is for specific things, right? It’s to educate children in academia,” said one dad. “It’s not about political persuasions and it's not about gun control, and it’s not about making sure guns are available to whomsoever wants to buy them.”
In response to an inquiry by a local Fox News affiliate, the principal of the school said her administration would “evaluate other gun safety resources” and planned to have Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense give a presentation to students.
Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand, thinks Eddie Eagle is little more than a thinly veiled ad campaign intended to create future firearms buyers.
“For a really long time, the NRA has pretended that Eddie Eagle is a responsible way to teach kids about gun safety,” Watts said. “But it’s actually more like a marketing or a propaganda tool, similar to Joe Camel in marketing cigarettes to kids. And thankfully, Eddie Eagle is going by the wayside, much like Joe Camel did.”
To that end, the program has featured stars such as Jason Priestley, who played Brandon Walsh on the hit series Beverly Hills, 90210, and the animated Eddie Eagle was voiced by Cam Clarke, who also provided the voices of, among others, two of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Liquid Snake of the Metal Gear Solid video game franchise. (Priestley did not respond to a request for comment sent via his manager; Clarke did not respond to messages seeking comment.)
Watts, whose organization is affiliated with Everytown, insists the responsibility for gun safety “should never be on children, because they have underdeveloped brains at that age, because they’re curious and impulsive.” According to figures provided by Watts, roughly 4.6 million children live in homes with unsecured firearms—a number she said is likely higher now, with the sharp increase in gun sales in the early days of the pandemic.
“Putting the onus on children to stay safe around guns is a recipe for disaster,” said Watts. “But the NRA doesn’t want to put the onus on gun owners, even though responsible gun owners know that they should keep their guns locked, unloaded, separate from ammunition when they’re around kids. The NRA wants to encourage guns for anyone, anytime, anywhere, no questions asked.”
A 2002 study in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics found that young children who participated in a weeklong gun safety program were just as likely to pick up a gun they found as kids who hadn’t gone through the program.
When the NRA was founded in 1871, its motto was “Firearms Safety Education, Marksmanship Training, Shooting for Recreation.” In the 1930s, the NRA worked with President Franklin Roosevelt to create the first gun control laws. It was during this time that NRA President Karl Frederick appeared before Congress, testifying, “I have never believed in the general practice of carrying weapons. I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.”
To Watts, the NRA lost its way after becoming corrupted by “power and wealth.” As the organization’s base became more and more extreme over the years, it pulled the NRA to the right in the same way the Tea Party pulled the GOP rightward in the 1990s, Watts said. Eventually, the NRA threw in its lot with ex-President Donald Trump and shifted even further to the right.
At the same time, Watts believes the NRA “saw the writing on the wall” as gun owners became older. To maintain its relevance, the NRA needed to cultivate a new generation of gun enthusiasts, she said.
“It’s why they try to force guns onto college campuses, it’s why they are in public schools with grant programs, it’s why they’re trying to lower the age for Americans to buy handguns from 21 to 18, despite data that shows that they’re four times likely to commit gun homicide,” said Watts.
Part and parcel of this, according to Watts, is Eddie Eagle, which was revamped in 2015 by Lisa Monroe, an expert in early childhood education at the University of Oklahoma’s School of Education. When the NRA’s outside communications agency asked Monroe to participate in a program about safety, she didn’t see anything wrong with it, she told The Trace in a 2016 interview.
When Monroe later realized the NRA was promoting Eddie Eagle as an alternative to child access prevention laws, she was appalled.
“No one ever told me that’s how the program was going to be used,” she told The Trace. “If they had, I assure you, I wouldn’t have anything to do with it.” Monroe did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
By enlarging the dataset being analyzed, Warren Eller, a gun policy expert who teaches at New York City’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, notes that shootings overall have actually been on the decline over the past 20 years.
But the numbers aren’t out yet for 2021, which Eller expects will be very different due to the surge of U.S. gun sales that began at the start of the COVID pandemic.
“This is a year we’ve seen a huge increase in the number of first-time gun owners, to the tune of tens of millions,” Eller told The Daily Beast. “And so I would expect we’re going to see a pretty dramatic change in [the number of unintentional shootings].”
The number of unintentional shootings reported in official data is almost certainly an undercount, said Eller, pointing out that the public generally only hears about the cases in which a death or an emergency room visit occurs.
The period from March to December 2020 saw a 31 percent increase over the same months in 2019 in unintentional shooting deaths by children, with 314 shootings resulting in 128 deaths and 199 nonfatal injuries, according to Watts.
So far in 2021, there have been at least 216 unintentional shootings by children, according to Watts, which she said resulted in 83 deaths and 145 injuries nationwide.
Eli Parker doesn’t remember much of what happened back in the spring of 2002, just bits and pieces, according to his mom. After he recovered from his injuries and began attending school, Eli Parker ultimately received classroom instruction in gun safety through the Eddie Eagle program. However, his mom was not impressed.
“I’m not sure I would call what they did a training,” she said. “More like a short discussion.”
Haley Parker Rinehart said her former in-laws laid the blame for what had happened on her and Eli. Rinehart wanted to press charges against her husband’s mother for leaving the gun out, unsecured. However, the laws in Kentucky didn’t consider what had happened to be a crime. She later filed a civil lawsuit, to which Eli’s grandmother responded by threatening suicide, said Rinehart, who decided to finally cut ties.
Beyond the physical scars, Rinehart, who is now an advocate for Everytown’s own gun safety program, said the psychological trauma has been “probably the hardest” thing to deal with. Both Eli and his brother have suffered from recurring nightmares. Eli was bullied mercilessly by other kids in school over his facial scars and prosthetic eye. He has long dealt with tremendous amounts of guilt, as well.
Today, Eli is working as he takes a break from school. He would like to study biomechatronics, and one day create advanced prosthesis for people with injuries like his own. Eli’s interest in the subject stems from his personal experience being shot, said Rinehart.
The tug-of-war over gun safety laws and how best to prevent inadvertent shootings can feel intractable. In a 2013 interview, a North Carolina man whose son accidentally shot and killed his brother with a pistol he found in his parents’ bedroom, said he still had mixed feelings about safe storage laws and gun safety measures such as trigger locks: “For defense at night, I don’t think you should have to have a lock on it because you’re going to have to access it quickly.”
Eller doesn’t expect the debate surrounding children’s access to guns will be solved anytime soon, if ever. And it almost certainly won’t be Eddie Eagle who makes the difference.
“It’s a complex issue,” Eller said. “And in this world of policy narratives and morality politics, we’re not going to find a good solution.