In 1988, the National Rifle Association ( NRA) selected Eddie Eagle, a cartoon character in the form of an eagle, as the mascot for the organization's firearms safety for children program. The program involves a school-based curriculum for children in preschool through the sixth grade. Despite the asserted civic virtue of the program, Eddie Eagle created the same sort of controversy in the gun control debate that Joe Camel prompted in the dispute over cigarette smoking. While the NRA stated that the cartoon character added to the appeal of the safety program, gun control advocates claimed that it attracted young children to essentially unsafe products and diverted attention away from more effective ways of ensuring the safety of children from firearms.
NRA President Marion Hammer began the Eddie Eagle program in Florida in response to state legislative efforts to enact child access prevention (CAP) legislation that would establish criminal penalties for adults who failed to keep firearms away from children. Hammer argued that the best way to protect children from firearms was to educate them about the potential dangers of guns. Although the bill ultimately passed the Florida legislature, Hammer was able to include an amendment that required the Florida Department of Education to generate a framework for a gun awareness program to by introduced in the Florida public schools. The Dade County school system passed over the Eddie Eagle program and funded a Center to Prevent Handgun Violence (CPHV) gun violence prevention program. However, Hammer succeeded in having the Eddie Eagle materials included along with the CPHV program.
The NRA has campaigned for the introduction of its firearm safety program as a substitute for child access prevention legislation that would initiate penalties for unsafe storage of weapons. For instance, in February 1997 the Indiana General Assembly replaced a CAP bill with an amendment mandating an Eddie Eagle program. Proponents of CAP legislation argue that the NRA substitute inappropriately relieves the gun owner of responsibility for firearm storage and in effect places that responsibility on children.
The NRA noted that the Eddie Eagle program had received the National Safety Council's ( NSC) Silver Award of Merit in 1995 for initiating the training program for children. Opponents of the program quickly noted that the president of the National Safety Council informed Hammer that the NRA had improperly cited the award issued to the organization by the Council's Youth Activities Division when lobbying against a bill requiring trigger lock safety devices, a bill that the National Safety Council endorsed. The organization requested that the NRA stop re-