Voices by Choices members at a an MLK Day event remembering 7-year-old Zamar Jones. fatally shot in the summer of 2020 in West Philly

💡 Get Philly smart 💡
with BP’s free daily newsletter

Read the news of the day in less than 10 minutes — not that we’re counting.

💌 Love Philly? Sign up for the free Billy Penn email newsletter to get everything you need to know about Philadelphia, every day.

Update: A few hours after Billy Penn’s article was published, the police department decided to pull the program, according to the official PPD Twitter account.

The National Rifle Association is behind a new Philadelphia rec center program announced Wednesday by Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw.

The NRA’s Eddie Eagle GunSafe program has been around since 1988. Outlaw introduced it as something the police department’s community relations unit is “spearheading” at locations around the city, to help educate kids about guns and gun safety. Independent studies, however, have found the program ineffective at keeping children away from firearms, and the NRA has used it to argue against the need for additional regulations.

Advocates and elected officials expressed concern over working closely with the nation’s largest gun lobbying group, which in 2015 sued Philadelphia to stop the city from implementing several gun control measures.

“We know the policies and solutions needed to curb gun violence in Philadelphia. Partnering with the NRA is not one of them,” said Adam Garber, executive director of statewide advocacy group CeaseFire PA. “They have fought every effort to save the lives of Philadelphia’s children from this crisis, including by tying the hands of local officials.”

City Councilmember Isaiah Thomas on Wednesday decried the apparent partnership. “The police using the Eddie Eagle program is two steps backwards,” he said, “and should not be funded by taxpayer dollars.”

The mayor’s office declined to comment on the program. Notably, it does not appear in Mayor Jim Kenney’s updated “Roadmap to Safer Communities,” which was released during the same briefing at which Outlaw touted Eddie Eagle.

Like other U.S. cities, Philly experienced a shocking surge in gun violence during pandemic lockdowns. The situation has not calmed down.

Homicides are running 35% ahead of last year’s three-decade-high of nearly 499 people killed, and shootings are up 39% versus last year to date. More and more of these incidents involve children, both as victims and instigators. So far this year, 55 children have been shot.

Late Wednesday evening, police spokesperson Sgt. Eric Gripp told Billy Penn the NRA is not involved in implementing the program. “The program is free, the materials are free, and it is instructed by police officers,” he said. “Children’s curiosity and lack of awareness leads to unfortunate incidents, and this is why we feel teaching these types of programs is important.”

Studies: Eddie Eagle doesn’t help kids in ‘real-world scenarios with a gun present’

Over the past several decades, NRA’s Eddie Eagle program has been used to teach more than 15 million children across the U.S. what to do if they encounter a gun, according to a 2020 report from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s PolicyLab — despite evidence the method is ineffective at preventing gun injuries or deaths.

The problem, authors noted, is that educational demonstrations don’t line up with real-life situations. “While there are some interventions that are shown to increase a child’s knowledge about gun safety, none have demonstrated behavior changes when children are placed in real-world scenarios with a gun present,” the CHOP report said.

In the past, Mayor Kenney has called out other elected officials for their supposed connections with the NRA, when railing against Philly’s lack of jurisdiction over gun laws in the city.

“If the state and federal government don’t want to stand up to the NRA and some other folks, then let us police ourselves,” Kenney said in 2019, after a violent shootout in North Philly where six PPD officers were injured.

The increased violence over the past year and a half has spurred calls from all sides for the city to take a better approach.

In March, grassroots organizers hosted a protest at City Hall calling on the mayor and legislators to direct more resources to help curb Philly’s gun violence epidemic. Anti-violence activist Jamal Johnson underwent a nearly one-month long hunger strike this past winter to urge action. He ceased the action only after Kenney pledged to fulfill a number of steps outlined in a City Council resolution to address violence.

The resolution, introduced by Councilmember Gauthier, called on the mayor to declare gun violence a citywide emergency, which has not happened. Kenney did declare gun violence a public health emergency back in 2018.

In February, Kenney finally agreed to hold biweekly briefings on the city’s gun violence response, which is where Commissioner Outlaw revealed the NRA partnership.

Two separate 2004 studies published in the medical journal Pediatrics found that the Eddie Eagle program didn’t help keep kids away from guns. Researchers Raymond Miltenberger found, the groups of 4- to 6-year-olds who had gone through what’s called “behavioral skills training” were most likely to avoid touching firearms. The NRA-taught kids did better than the control group, according to The Trace, but not by much.

CeaseFire’s Garber agreed: “The police department should look towards behavioral science techniques that have been shown to get children to recognize the deadly nature of firearms and treat them as such.”

Avatar photo

Danya Henninger

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...