House advances bill offering NRA’s Eddie Eagle gun-safety program starting with kindergartners

Democrats object to committee process, content of legislation

By: - March 17, 2021 3:59 pm
Rep. Patrick Penn, R-Wichita, urged House colleagues to support House Bill 2089 to compel the state Board of Education to lay the foundation to offer gun-safety curriculum for K-12 students endorsed by the National Rifle Association and the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.

Rep. Patrick Penn, R-Wichita, urged House colleagues to support House Bill 2089 to compel the state Board of Education to lay the foundation to offer gun-safety curriculum for K-12 students endorsed by the National Rifle Association and the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. (Screen capture by Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The Kansas House deflected advice from a Republican who retired as a three-star Army general and from a Democratic gun-violence activist Wednesday to advance a bill requiring the state Board of Education to initiate gun safety instruction for elementary and middle school students based on the National Rifle Association’s trademarked program.

The legislation was the product of a House committee’s maneuver blocking testimony from educators and others about imposition of the NRA’s Eddie Eagle program for children in kindergarten through fifth grade. The bill also calls for Eddie Eagle or state hunter education programs for sixth- to eighth-graders and for the state hunter safety program to serve high school students.

Under House Bill 2089, local school boards could choose not to authorize hunter safety instruction in a district. The bill was advanced to final action 74-43, and that vote could be expected to occur Thursday.

Rep. Jo Ella Hoye, D-Lenexa, failed to convince House members to add an amendment emphasizing in state law that Kansas gun owners were responsible for storing firearms in ways making them inaccessible to children. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

An attempt to widen gun-safety curriculum options in the bill was defeated in the Republican-led House as were attempts by Democrats to modify the bill to encourage safe storage of firearms by owners or to create a criminal statute requiring trigger locks on firearms. A motion to send the bill back to the House Federal and State Affairs Committee for a typical hearing on the subject was defeated.

Rep. Michael Dodson, a Manhattan Republican who served as commanding general at Fort Riley, said some legislators would be surprised by his opposition to the bill given his 37-year career in the U.S. Army.

He said the bill sounded good on the surface, but obscured the problem of parents not taking responsibility for education of their children. In this case, he said, the bill was designed to create in curriculum a familiarity with firearms that had no place in schools.

“I don’t want to mix schools and guns,” said Dodson, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general. “The problem with kids and guns is not the kids. It’s the parents. Young kids don’t buy guns. Parents buy guns and they bring them into the house and then bad things happen. We seem to more and more hand these problems off at the schools and walk away.”

Rep. Jo Ella Hoye, a Lenexa Democrat who has volunteered with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, offered an amendment — soundly defeated —that would emphasize that Kansas gun owners were responsible for storing firearms in ways making them inaccessible to children. The best way to do that, she said, would be to lock guns in storage separately from ammunition. Her amendment would have clarified anyone teaching the NRA or Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism programs to K-12 students would be prohibited from bringing a loaded weapon into a school building.

“A variant of this particular amendment was defeated in committee. I see this as a bad amendment,” said Rep. Patrick Penn, the Wichita Republican and chief sponsor of the gun bill.

He said the bill ought to be named in honor of Roy’Ale Spencer, a 9-year-old boy in Wichita accidently shot and killed by a friend in 2019. The boys managed to get into a locked gun safe and were handling a shotgun when Spencer was shot. The Sedgwick County district attorney didn’t file charges in the death.

On social media, Spencer’s mother, Sunny Smith, said she supported the firearm safety bill offered by Penn. She also endorsed a gun storage bill introduced by Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita. GOP members of the House and Senate have a track record of working to derail legislation dictating to Kansans how to store weapons in favor of broader protection of gun owners.

“I know there’s a lot of controversy on what bills I support,” Smith said. “I support both. Some type of education is definitely needed. A safe storage law is definitely needed.”

The NRA recommends the Eddie Eagle program as a way for parents, law enforcement officers, community groups and educators to help prevent gun accidents. The fundamental message: “Stop. Don’t touch. Run away. Tell a grown up.” In addition, the gun-rights organization responds to criticism of the program by saying school engage in “stranger-danger, internet safety, fire drills and more with children. So, why not include gun safety?” The NRA suggests the Eddie Eagle program delivers no value judgment about firearms.

Rep. Boog Highberger, D-Lawrence, said a flawed committee process in the House blocked public input into a bill opening the door to the NRA teaching children as young as kindergarten curriculum on firearm safety. (Pool photo by Evert Nelson/Topeka Capital-Journal)
Rep. Boog Highberger, D-Lawrence, said a flawed committee process in the House effectively blocked public input on a bill opening the door to teaching NRA-sponsored gun safety curriculum to children as young as kindergarten. (Pool photo by Evert Nelson/Topeka Capital-Journal)

During the House committee meeting on the bill last week, Rep. Vic Miller, D-Topeka, asked if Penn was attempting to dodge criticism that would result from subjecting his idea to a full-blown committee hearing with testimony from special-interest groups and others.

“Sir, I did 20 years in the Army. Not afraid of a hearing,” Penn said.

During House floor debate on Wednesday, Penn objected to an amendment offered by Rep. Boog Highberger, D-Lawrence, to expand the bill to allow local school boards to find alternative approaches to teaching gun safety to nearly 500,000 students in Kansas public schools. Penn said language of the bill had been “negotiated” to feature the NRA’s Eddie Eagle instruction, but he didn’t disclose who participated in those talks.

Rep. Jerry Stogsdill, D-Prairie Village, requested the House refer the bill back to the committee because Rep. John Barker, R-Abilene, presided over a meeting on House Bill 2089 designed to prevent opportunities for Kansans to object or applaud the NRA-sponsored program or the state’s hunter safety class. His motion failed.

Stogsdill said school boards at the state and levels should be allowed to weigh in on the legislation, but Barker said no House rules were violated when he deployed the gut-and-go maneuver and decided not to have a hearing on what he referred to as a “well-vetted” bill. Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, said the committee process didn’t comply with intent of rules designed to gather wisdom of constituents across the state.

“Teachers, school boards members, boards of education, parents and other people who were interested in this bill did not have a chance to have their say in committee. I think that’s a terrible misues of the legislative process,” Stogsdill said.

He said it was the fourth bill to reach the House floor during the 2021 session that would usurp rights and responsibilities of the state Board of Education.

“Maybe some time in the future, instead of aiming our legislation at five-year-olds, we ought to maybe legislate some common sense gun laws that are directed towards the adults in our state. Because that seems to be the genesis of the problem, if you ask me,” Stogsdill said.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.

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