Bird Watchers

With Joe Camel in retirement, it was perhaps inevitable that another cartoon character would emerge to threaten the youth of America. According to a recent report from the Violence Policy Center, his name is Eddie Eagle.

Eddie is the mascot for the National Rifle Association's gun safety program, the one that tells kids: "If you see a gun: Stop! Don't touch. Leave the area. Tell an adult." That may not seem sinister to you, which is why the VPC's exposé is so important.

The report's general approach is clear from the title: Joe Camel with Feathers. For the target audience--receptive journalists and politicians--this phrase is equivalent to Adolf Hitler with a Beak.

The guilt by association continues in the subtitle: How the NRA with Gun and Tobacco Industry Dollars Uses Its Eddie Eagle Program to Market Guns to Kids. The report makes a big deal out of donations by firearm manufacturers and tobacco companies to the NRA Foundation, which funds the Eddie Eagle program. But it never explains why, if it's wrong to "market guns to kids," doing so with firearm and tobacco money is worse.

The VPC argues that donations from the gun industry--less than 1 percent of the NRA Foundation's budget--show that Eddie Eagle helps drum up business by fostering a positive attitude toward firearms. It's hard to see how Eddie's message encourages warm and fuzzy feelings about guns. In fact, the report quotes NRA officials who worry that his warnings make guns look bad. In any case, while the NRA's interests clearly overlap with the firearm industry's, surely this is one group that does not need to be bribed into defending gun ownership.

The repeated references to donations from Philip Morris and the Smokeless Tobacco Council are even more puzzling, especially since the report says "the exact reason for tobacco industry support of The NRA Foundation is unclear." It seems the VPC is simply playing up the connection in the hope that the tobacco industry's tar will rub off on Eddie's feathers.

The VPC can't let go of the tobacco analogy, even when the result is comical. "Just as Joe Camel helped hook a generation on tobacco," says VPC Executive Director Josh Sugarmann, "the NRA and the gun industry hope Eddie Eagle will hook a new generation on guns." First Eddie lures you into plinking cans. Before you know it, you're hunting deer. Then you start waking up in the morning hankering to pull a trigger, and you have to leave work several times a day to shoot skeets. Yep. You're hooked on guns.

What's next? Secondhand gunsmoke?

If there's an instructive comparison here, it's between anti-smoking activists and gun prohibitionists like Sugarmann. Both assume their opponents are driven by evil motives. Conversely, both assume that all decent people will automatically agree with them, taking offense at the same things and embracing the same solutions.

When the VPC decries attempts "to market guns to kids," it is actually talking about efforts to pass on a culture of responsible gun ownership. For the folks at the VPC, who want to ban handguns and "keep homes gun-free," training children how to handle firearms is reckless. For the folks at the NRA, what's reckless is the failure to do so.

There is an enormous and perhaps unbridgeable cultural gap between these two groups and the constituencies they represent. It explains why the authors of the VPC report are constantly amazed at what they take to be incriminating public statements by NRA and gun industry officials about "reaching out to more children," "cultivating the next generation of shooters," and "promotion of the hunting and shooting lifestyle to a younger audience."

The VPC breathlessly reports that NRA officials, in comments recorded by "undercover" investigators at trade shows, said Eddie Eagle's warning to avoid guns should be supplemented by the message that "guns are not bad, but we need to learn how to use them." One official compared Eddie's advice about guns to what we tell children about matches. To the VPC, this is scary stuff. To me, it seems pretty sensible.

"The real purpose of Eddie Eagle," VPC policy analyst Sue Glick observes, "is not to keep children safe from guns, but [to keep them] safe with guns." She clearly thinks that's a bad idea. What's not clear is why.

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