Journal Issue: Children, Youth, and Gun Violence Volume 12 Number 2 Summer/Fall 2002
Working with Children (2/3)
Gun Violence Prevention Approaches with Children
Very few programs for children focus exclusively on firearm injury and violence, and only a few general injury and violence prevention programs incorporate lessons on gun safety into their curricula. In a review and evaluation of 84 violence prevention programs, only 5 included a firearm violence or safety component.55
Essentially, programs for children take one of two basic approaches: gun safety or gun avoidance. Evaluations of these programs remain very limited, and, unfortunately, no program has yet been proven to consistently succeed in keeping children from accessing and using guns.
Gun Safety Programs
Gun safety programs, typically administered by local firearms dealers and clubs, are designed to teach older children and adolescents how to properly handle a firearm (typically for hunting). Although no study has systematically evaluated such programs for children, gun safety programs have been found to be ineffective in decreasing the firearm injury and death rate among adults56 and to have had no positive effect on storage practices by gun owners.57,58 Even worse, some researchers suggest that gun safety courses for children are likely to increase children's interest in obtaining and using guns and that children cannot be expected to consistently use guns safely even with training.59
Gun Avoidance Programs
Gun avoidance programs are more common than gun safety programs, particularly for young children. The curricula of gun avoidance programs depend upon the age of the targeted audience. For younger children, the focus is on avoiding accidental injury; for older children and adolescents, the focus is on preventing the intentional carrying and use of guns. See Table 1 for an overview of several gun avoidance programs.
"Just Say No" Programs
Perhaps the most popular "Just Say No" curriculum for gun avoidance is the Eddie Eagle Gun Safety Program for prekindergarten children through sixth graders, developed by the National Rifle Association (NRA). According to the NRA, the Eddie Eagle program has reached 12 million children since 1988 and "isn't [intended] to teach whether guns are good or bad, but rather to promote the protection and safety of children."60 The NRA compares Eddie Eagle, the program's mascot, to Smokey Bear. The program advocates teaching children, "Stop! Don't touch. Leave the area. Tell an adult." The program does not give children a reason for avoiding guns (such as that guns are dangerous), but program developers do emphasize that children should be taught that real guns are not toys.61
The NRA offers no empirical evidence that its approach is effective but relies instead on testimonials, awards, and correlational data to demonstrate efficacy. A fact sheet published by the NRA argues, for example, "In just one year, from 1991 to 1992—while Eddie Eagle reached out to nearly a million youngsters—according to the National Safety Council, the rate of accidental firearm fatalities among children ages 14 and under fell by 13 percent."60 However, to argue that the Eddie Eagle Program is successful because the number of gun-related injuries among children decreased in one year fails to consider other variables that may be responsible for behavior change over that time period.
Only one study has empirically investigated a "Just Say No" approach to firearm use among children.62 In that study, half of a sample of 48 preschool children were randomly assigned to participate in a firearm safety program in which they and their parents listened to a community police officer discuss the dangers of guns. After promising never to touch a gun if they saw one, the children were paired with a playmate who had not heard the officer speak and were observed in a setting where they had access to disarmed but real firearms. The children who had heard the officer speak were just as likely as the children in the control group to play with the guns. Furthermore, they were just as likely to play with the guns after the intervention as before.
"Just Say No" approaches have been found to be ineffective in other areas as well. For example, a program to decrease drug use among youth, Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE), is similar in many respects to the Eddie Eagle program: Youth are taught in school settings, often by community police officers, to "Just Say No" to drugs. Although some studies have noted initial improvements in attitude toward drugs following participation in the DARE program, these attitude changes were not long-lasting, and studies have found no effect from the program on actual drug use, either in the short or the long term.63
It is not clear why "Just Say No" approaches are ineffective. One possibility is that children have difficulty resisting temptation, and temptation increases as objects are forbidden. In one study, fourth graders perceived a particular toy as being more attractive after they were told that they could not play with it.64 Among older children, using firearms may be perceived as a forbidden adult privilege (akin to drinking alcohol, driving a car, and having sex), thus making gun use more enticing.65 Because older youth also explore and test limits placed on them by adults, telling these children to "Just Say No," without discussing why they should say no, may actually result in an increase in the forbidden behavior. Within the drug-resistance literature, researchers have found that programs focusing on why kids should say no to drugs are more effective than those that just say how to say no, and that some "Just Say No" programs may even have the unintended effect of increasing drug use.66,67
"Just Say No" programs also may be ineffective because they lead youth to believe that carrying and using guns is normative behavior among their peers. Norms set the standard for behavior, and people act in accordance with perceived norms so as to fit in or belong to a group.68 Researchers have shown that adolescents tend to overestimate the extent to which their peers engage in risky or illicit behaviors,54 which may influence their willingness to engage in those same behaviors. Moreover, when told not to do something, adolescents may believe that the forbidden behavior is more common than it really is, which can increase their personal involvement in that behavior.69,70
To counteract this tendency, experts recommend that health education programs minimize the prevalence of problem behaviors rather than promote the misperception that the behaviors are common.66 Perhaps, then, programs emphasizing that few adolescents carry guns would be more effective than programs suggesting that gun carrying is the norm.
Finally, "Just Say No" programs may not be comprehensive enough to help children develop and retain the skills needed to stay safe around guns. The injury prevention literature suggests that the following components make for a successful injury prevention program: (1) use of rewards and incentives, (2) rehearsal of skills learned, (3) demonstration and imitation of appropriate behaviors, (4) step-by-step verbalizations of appropriate behaviors, and (5) immediate feedback from the instructor.71 Furthermore, effective violence prevention programs include activities to help youth develop anger management skills, empathy and perspective taking, social problem skills, negotiation skills, media resistance, resistance to provocation, communication skills, and relationship-building skills.55