NRA gun-safety program for Va. grade schools criticized

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 21, 2010

RICHMOND -- The Virginia General Assembly has directed the state's Board of Education to develop course materials for teaching gun safety to elementary school children that incorporate the guidelines of a National Rifle Association program.

The measure, approved during the legislature's recently concluded annual session, allows local school boards to choose whether to implement the program.

A leading Democrat in the state Senate had amended the bill to allow the state board to also incorporate materials from a second group, the National Crime Prevention Center. But Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) has proposed stripping the amendment from the bill, leaving the reference only to NRA material.

A McDonnell spokeswoman said there is no such group as the National Crime Prevention Center. The similarly named National Crime Prevention Council, best known for its McGruff the Crime Dog programs, did develop a gun safety curriculum several years ago, but a spokesman for the group said it has not been updated in several years.

Advocates for an alternative to the NRA program acknowledged the error in the crime-prevention organization's name, but said McDonnell could have proposed correcting the group's name rather than removing it entirely.

In Virginia, the governor has a line-item veto that allows him to rewrite bills passed by the General Assembly. The legislature will gather in Richmond on Wednesday for a one-day session to consider whether to accept McDonnell's amendments. Legislators will weigh his change to the school gun program bill, along with amendments to 121 other bills. They will also vote on 96 amendments McDonnell has requested to the state's two-year state budget.

A group called Virginians for Public Safety, which works closely with pro-gun-control family members of victims of the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, is calling on the legislature to reject McDonnell's change in the gun education bill.

"If a school division elects to have this program, it should not be the exclusive domain of the gun lobby to supply the material," said Alice Mountjoy, a founding member of the group. "It's very narrow and, to my mind, narrow-minded."

According to the legislation, the state's curriculum must "incorporate, among other principles of firearm safety, accident prevention and the rules upon which the Eddie Eagle Gunsafe Program offered by the National Rifle Association" is based.

Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the National Rifle Association, said the Eddie Eagle program is geared to younger children and uses a jingle to teach that if a child sees a gun, he or she should stop, not touch the weapon, leave the area and tell an adult.

"Education is a very powerful tool," he said. "Yet, you have some really narrow-minded and politically motivated people trying to jeopardize a good program."

The bill was sponsored by Del. Lynwood W. Lewis Jr., a Democrat who represents rural Accomack County and part of the city of Norfolk. He said that he does not expect Fairfax County to offer gun safety courses but that some school divisions in rural parts of the state where hunting is common would probably choose the option.

Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), who proposed the amendment to allow the use of materials from the National Crime Prevention Center as well as the NRA, said he has no opposition to McDonnell's change given that the group he intended to refer to has not recently been distributing material about gun safety.

Andrew Fois, a managing director of the National Crime Prevention Council, said that his group would be "thrilled to be included" in the program but that it does not have the resources to revise its gun safety material.

"We weren't consulted before we were put in," Fois said. "And we weren't consulted now that we've been taken out."

Stacey Johnson, a spokeswoman for McDonnell, said the governor supported the measure, which received overwhelming bipartisan support in the legislature, as "a good way to prevent accidents." She said his amendment aimed to remove a reference to the nonexistent center.

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