Gun education bill falters in Md. House

Delegates disagree on NRA program role

March 27, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

A proposal to teach gun safety in schools was derailed in the General Assembly yesterday because of a disagreement over the role of a National Rifle Assocation-backed teaching program that features a smiling cartoon raptor called Eddie Eagle.

Lawmakers in the House of Delegates and Senate have written legislation requiring schools to have gun education courses for children in kindergarten through the 12th grade, which would make Maryland the first state to require such a policy. The Senate bill passed 41-3.

But a behind-the-scenes dispute between the NRA and anti-gun rights advocates over what should be taught, and to whom, resulted in the House of Delegates sending its version of the bill back yesterday to the Ways and Means Committee, from where it is unlikely to re-emerge before the General Assembly adjourns April 9.

"Let's put it on the table here," House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said after the vote. "This is about some groups who want an education program that will educate the kids to hate guns, and another group that wants to educate the kids to like guns but respect guns and handle them in a safe way. It's a philosophical battle."

Taylor, who says he is a champion of the Second Amendment, supports the NRA's Eddie Eagle program, which teaches children that if they find a gun they should "STOP! Don't touch. Leave the area. Tell an adult," according to the NRA Web site.

Taylor and others say they fear that Eddie Eagle would be barred from schools in favor of anti-gun rights programs, although supporters say the bill neither requires nor precludes the use of specific teaching tools. "I'm not going to support any bill that is written in such a way that Eddie Eagle can't be taught," Democrat Taylor said last night. His insistence can also be traced to his home county of Allegany, where gun control is unpopular. Ever since he supported the governor's gun safety legislation last session, Taylor has been relentlessly attacked as anti-gun in his local newspaper.

Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, the Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the Senate bill, was nonplused when told of the House action. Earlier discussions with Taylor led her to believe that he did not object to the House version, which she supported.

"Shame on them if they killed the bills," she said. "It looks to me like the NRA is just more interested in having their name in the bill than in saving kids."

NRA lobbyist Greg Costa retorted: "That's utter nonsense. We supported language that would have allowed for any program as long as there's local control." Besides, he noted, the Eddie Eagle program, typically taught by law enforcement officers, doesn't include any mention of the NRA.

In the middle of this struggle is Del. Sheila E. Hixson, a Montgomery Democrat and chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee, which approved the gun safety bill and brought it to the floor, where a barrage of conflicting amendments awaited it yesterday.

Hours later - after meeting with House leaders - she told her committee members: "The two sides are in total opposition to each other. Both sides are meeting, but it doesn't look like it's going to work."

Lobbyists for Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse and the NRA privately declared the measure all but dead. Some lawmakers, including Hoffman, had hope that the measure could be saved.

On paper, the philosophical differences don't look big. Advocates for both sides agree that teaching gun safety in schools can help reduce firearm accidents. (Handgun Control, a group based in Washington that tracks gun policy, says guns killed 104 children and teen-agers in Maryland in 1997).

They also agree to teach gun safety through 12th grade, and they don't mind naming the bill for John Joseph Price, a Carroll County 13-year-old who was killed in 1998 by a 9-year-old boy playing with a handgun. They can accept a bill that calls for using a variety of teaching programs, including Eddie Eagle.

But the details of the legislation have caused gridlock. Some gun-rights lawmakers and advocates want local counties to have full control over the curriculum, without State Board of Education oversight. They fear Eddie Eagle would be barred from schools in favor of anti-gun programs.

"I wasn't confident that the state guidelines would allow the rural counties to handle the curriculum in a way that was consistent with the culture," said Costa, of the NRA.

In addition, if the program stretched to the 12th grade, the NRA wanted topics such as hunter safety to be taught from seventh grade on - something Hoffman could not particularly abide, she said, adding that hunter safety was hardly the most useful instruction for students in Baltimore City.

Although legislators were OK with naming the bill after Price, the naming has caused consternation. The NRA had proposed including Eddie Eagle with Price's name. But the boy's father, John Price, said yesterday that he and his wife don't want to advocate any particular education program.

The nasty tone of the debate has left many lawmakers pessimistic that the bill can be repaired during the remaining days of the session. "It's unfortunate," said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat and an early sponsor of the gun safety education legislation. The hearing on her bill was "one of the best policy discussions I've had since being here," she said. "I just hope that somehow this can survive."

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