Hunting and guns are an integral part of the culture in Washington County, and children are often introduced to them at a young age.
However, the majority of that learning takes place among family members or in group settings outside of local schools.
A bill before the Missouri legislature would require first-graders to take the National Rifle Association's Eddie Eagle Gunsafe Program, which teaches children what to do if they come across an unsecured gun, according to published reports. The measure has perhaps received some additional attention since it includes a requirement for teacher training on dealing with an armed intruder at a school and it was filed the day before the Dec. 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in which 20 students and six educators were killed.
EVAN BEVINS The Marietta Times
Lowell resident Michael Steinel lines up his shot Wednesday afternoon at the Fort Harmar Rifle Club. A competitive shooter, the 16-year-old practices 18 to 20 hours a week.
A similar measure hasn't been introduced in Ohio, but local school officials indicated Wednesday they would be open to considering such a program.
"Who can argue with gun safety?" Belpre City Schools Superintendent Tony Dunn said.
Virginia adopted the NRA program as its standard for school districts implementing such training two years ago. The fact that the NRA program was the only option drew some criticism.
Teresa Stone, volunteer 4-H shooting sports coordinator for Washington County, said she's taught the Eddie Eagle program in the past at local Safetytown events and it doesn't promote a pro-gun agenda.
"It's straight gun safety for the younger age group," said Stone, noting the program's slogan of "STOP! Don't touch. Leave the area. Tell an adult." "It's just making them aware that you don't always pick up everything that you see."
According to the NRA website, www.nra.org, the Eddie Eagle program has been taught to more than 25 million children across all 50 states. It can be taught in one- or five-day formats and includes a video featuring a cartoon eagle and workbooks. The site says the program has no agenda other than accident prevention and does not encourage children to buy guns or join the NRA.
"Eddie Eagle is never shown touching a firearm, and he does not promote firearm ownership or use," the site says. "The program never mentions the NRA."
Ohio Rep. Andy Thompson, R-Marietta, said the program sounds like something positive, but he would not favor requiring schools to use it.
"I'm not huge on mandates," he said, adding that, "I would like to see kids get an opportunity to do that (take the class)."
Marietta resident Mike Foster, 42, said he thinks gun safety should be taught in schools, but he's not sure he agrees with a mandate for first-graders. Foster's grandfather taught him to use a BB gun when he was 6 years old, but he didn't introduce his own son to firearms until he was 10. The primary reason was that the boy hadn't expressed an interest before then.
"A responsible gun owner should be able to determine whether their child is ready and at what age," Foster said.
Foster's son wanted to go hunting with him, so he gave him an empty pellet gun, but had him treat it as if it were loaded - a basic tenet for anyone handling a firearm.
Students at some area schools learn about gun use and safety at 4-H Camp Hervida in sixth or eighth grade, but local districts generally do not have any specific gun-related material in their curriculum beyond that. Most children who learn about gun safety in Washington County get the lessons from their parents or through a group like 4-H or the Boy Scouts of America.
Lowell resident Michael Steinel started shooting BB guns at the Scouts' Camp Kootaga in Wood County, W.Va., when he was 7 years old. At age 9, he progressed to 4-H shooting sports and now competes regularly in rifle events, with a National Junior Olympic Championships in Colorado on the horizon in April.
Steinel said safety was a primary emphasis from the start.
"The first thing they said to us in the meeting was because you're handling firearms, you have to act like an adult," he said.
Steinel's interest also became a learning experience for his father, Scott, who has become a certified instructor and teaches children shooting sports at Camp Hervida.
Scott Steinel, 48, said he never had much interest in hunting or exposure to guns prior to that. Like Foster, he said the age at which a child starts learning about guns and gun safety depends on the individual child and the parents, among other factors.
"I think it also depends on where you live," he said, noting Washington County is a rural area where hunting is popular and guns are found in many homes. "If you live in California, probably not," he said, referring to where he grew up.
Stone said 9 is the minimum age for participation in 4-H shooting sports because children can better grasp the lessons and their stature and hand-eye coordination are better suited to the activity.
Youth are not an uncommon sight at Washington County gun ranges. The Fort Harmar Rifle Club and Washington County Fish and Game Club both require youth to be accompanied by adults until they reach the age of 18.
Jean Ann Myers, secretary of the fish and game club, said the group has a youth day in September when representatives of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Division of Wildlife offer gun safety and hunter education classes.
"We believe that if you're going to hunt you need to be responsible," she said.