By TIM CARPENTER
TOPEKA — Advocates for implementing a statewide gun-safety program in Kansas public schools urged the Senate to get behind a bill requiring the Kansas State Board of Education to establish curriculum guidelines for instruction of students from kindergarten through high school.
A comparable bill approved by the 2021 Legislature and vetoed by Gov. Laura Kelly also drew upon the “Eddie Eagle” initiative offered through the National Rifle Association for children in kindergarten to eighth grade. Students in eighth through the 12th grades would be eligible for the firearm training program coordinated by the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.
The Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee on Wednesday took up Senate Bill 116, which offered a blueprint for exposing Kansas students to as many as 13 years of firearm training in public schools. It emerged at the Capitol at the same time Kansas legislators weighed proposals to forbid K-12 educators from delving into so-called “woke” subjects such as diversity and equity. Other bills in the Legislature would place in state law broader authority for parents to challenge classroom or library LGBTQ materials considered offensive to them.
Moriah Day, executive director of the Kansas State Rifle Association, said the state affiliate of the NRA requested reintroduction of the bill because establishing a unified curriculum for firearm education in public schools was “the only way to counteract the dangerous perspective many young people have from learning about firearms only through violent and careless examples on display across pop culture.”
He said the NRA approach was pragmatic because it acknowledged firearms were part of preparation for dangers of everyday life in the way advice was shared about the being safe while swimming, using electrical outlets or around fire hazards.
Johnson County resident Ephren Taylor III also addressed the Senate committee, but pointed to research indicating the Eddie Eagle program was “absolutely ineffective.” He said lobbying for firearm training in Kansas public schools was part of a campaign to build support for the NRA.
“Let’s be honest,” Taylor said. “We know why we’re choosing the NRA’s program. It’s not about gun safety. It’s about promoting the NRA to young kids so when they grow up they say, ‘Oh, Eddie Eagle. I remember him.’ You want to indoctrinate young kids into loyal NRA supporters.”
Olathe North High School student Aarushi Pore said the Senate bill would do nothing to impede school shootings. There were at least 50 in the United States during 2022, she said, the highest figure in five years.
“Every single day in America, students like me live in fear,” she said. “Fear of our present day at school being our last. We have been living in fear like it is normal to do so, hoping that our government can step up and provide effective change for the generation-long issues that we have been facing. ”
July 1 launch?
Under the Senate bill, the state Board of Education would be compelled to establish curriculum guidelines for firearm safety training conforming to programs offered by the NRA and Department of Wildlife and Parks. A local school board would make the final decision about whether to offer students instruction in gun safety.
If adopted in the 2023 legislative session, the statute would take effect July 1 and the new firearm programs could begin this fall. The Senate bill would require nearly 500,000 students in Kansas schools be afforded an opportunity to study how to responsibly deal with a gun. The anticipated annual cost of the program to the state would be $70,000.
Under the bill, students in kindergarten through grade five would exclusively have access to the NRA’s trademarked Eddie Eagle program. Students in grades six through eight would be in either the Eddie Eagle curriculum or the hunter safety program of the Department of Wildlife and Parks. The state parks department’s Hunter Education In Our Schools Program would be exclusive in grades nine through 12.
Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, a Wichita Democrat, said she was mildly supportive of the bill in the past because it was to honor the memory of Roy’Ale Spencer, a 9-year-old accidently killed by a shotgun blast in 2019. An 11-year-old friend had been handling the weapon when it fired. Faust-Goudeau said she withdrew support because Republicans refused to include a mandate Kansans store weapons in locked boxes.
There is merit to adding firearm safety training to schools just as the state proactively dealt with risks of inclement weather and fire emergencies, said Meade Republican Sen. Ron Ryckman Sr. He joked about his childhood when school officials had students practice huddling under classroom desks as if that might be useful during a nuclear attack.
“We’ve done this forever — trying to teach safety,” Ryckman said. “This would be a good one.”
Sen. Rick Kloos, the Berryton Republican, asked whether relying on NRA instructional materials the teach children as young as 5 years old about firearms might be significant in terms of vocal opposition to the bill.
“There may be a little hesitation, right, that comes around three letters,” said Rep. Patrick Penn, R-Wichita. “I didn’t think three letters should stop a child from being safe. I would say, let’s take the partisanship out of this. Let’s focus on the kids. We could have a good Kansas win for a change.”
Travis Couture-Lovelady, state director of the Kansas NRA’s political division, said the organization recruited hunting-focused organizations to support the bill in Kansas. During the Senate hearing, the Safari Club International and Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation touted it.
Darren LaSorte, of the firearms trade association known as the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said the bill ought to receive unanimous support from all 125 representatives, 40 senators and the governor.
“History and experience show that education must be encouraged, not suppressed. The anti-firearm zealots have weaponized firearm safety education and it is tragic. They cannot be suppressed and discouraged due to the political agendas of the most radical elements in our society,” LaSorte said.
State Board of Education member Ann Mah, who serves as a board liaison with the Legislature, said they were pleased the current version of the Senate bill left to local school districts the option of adopting the firearm education curriculum. She said the bill was unnecessary because Kansas districts already had authority to adopt firearm training programs.
“While the KSBOE understands the importance of firearm safety training, it rejects the notion that the Kansas Legislature has authority to set curricular standards in Kansas public schools. It is the purview of the KSBOE to set curricular standards. It is the purview of local boards of education to determine the curriculum to be used to meet those standards,” Mah said.
She said there was no evidence any Kansas school district had requested the state board develop a standardized curriculum on firearm education and training.
Lauren Tice Miller, a representative of the Kansas National Education Association, said the decision to place children in a gun safety program should be left to parents. Those programs ought to be operated outside the school day and outside school buildings, she said.
“A gun safety curriculum is far beyond the core reading, writing and arithmetic slogan that many Kansans would like to see emphasized,” said Pat Gouger of Overland Park. “Using the NRA as a supplier of such education is problematic at best. It’s aiding a corrupt, criminally negligent or complicit organization at worst.”