Compromise plan crafted on gun safety education

Bill to have schools discuss firearms seen passing in Assembly

March 31, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

A gun safety education proposal relegated to the legislative version of life support earlier this week has been revived, meaning Maryland could soon become the first state to require schools to teach children in grades K-12 about firearms.

Key lawmakers, the National Rifle Association and Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse say they support the latest version of the bill, and that they expect it to pass the full House and Senate before the General Assembly session adjourns April 9.

Earlier this week, many legislators assumed the House bill was ready for passage. On Monday, however, a number of amendments favored by the NRA awaited it on the floor. The bill was quickly sent back to the Ways and Means Committee, where its future initially looked bleak.

The bill's most powerful enemy was House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., a supporter of gun owner's rights who declared he would rather kill the proposal than pass legislation that did not include the option of teaching the "Eddie Eagle" gun safety program devised by the NRA.

The Senate and House bills neither barred nor recommended the use of Eddie Eagle - or any other teaching tool.

Advocates on the two sides of the debate also disagreed on whether students through 12th grade should take the classes - the NRA initially lobbied for kindergarten through sixth grade, in part because the Eddie Eagle program is designed for those grades - and whether hunter safety should be taught. Some said that might be useful training for students in Western Maryland, but not terribly helpful for those in urban areas.

Both sides wanted local control over the curriculum. The bill's proposed new language, written by Taylor, strikes a compromise everyone says they can accept.

Taylor's amendment says the State Board of Education must establish a policy, implemented by each county, "that includes as an option" the Eddie Eagle program; the "In a Flash" program, a 20-minute video developed by the National Emergency Medical Association; and the "STAR" program, developed by the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence.

In addition, schools have the option of teaching hunter safety to children in grades seven through 12. "It's getting me, ultimately, what I was after - mandated gun-safety education with a tolerable amount of flexibility," Taylor said, adding that he expects the bill to pass his chamber.

Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat and chief sponsor of a similar Senate bill, also indicated she could accept the amended House bill, because it achieves her priorities: K-12 gun safety education with local control.

John and Carole Price of Carroll County have been watching the past week's political maneuverings with a mixture of hope and confusion. Their son, John Joseph Price, was 13 when he was accidentally killed by a 9-year-old boy playing with a handgun in 1998. His death inspired Carroll County to implement gun-safety courses in local schools.

The Prices have been lobbying since last summer for the statewide bill. Yesterday, John Price said he was pleased that lawmakers seemed to have struck a deal. "Our whole goal was to have a good strong bill that didn't mandate any kind of education program, and that would save children's lives," he said.

His one regret is that his son's name might not appear in the title of the final legislation. "That hurts a little bit," he said. "But what you learn about the political world is that sometimes things don't happen the way you want them to."

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