By DAVID A. LIEB
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Missouri schools will be encouraged to teach first-graders a gun safety course sponsored by the National Rifle Association as a result of legislation signed Friday by Gov. Jay Nixon.
The new law stops short of requiring schools to teach the Eddie Eagle Gunsafe Program. But by putting it in state law, Missouri is providing one of the stronger state-sanctioned endorsements of the NRA-sponsored firearms safety course, which the group says is taught to about 1 million children annually.
The legislation also requires school personnel to participate in an "active shooter and intruder" drill led by law enforcement officers.
Both the staff and student training initially were proposed as mandates when the legislation was filed on Dec. 13, which was the day before a gunman massacred 26 people in a Connecticut elementary school, including 20 first-graders. The provision about the first-grade gun-safety course was amended to make it optional during Senate debate.
The legislation also transfers the responsibility for issuing identification cards for concealed gun permits from driver's license clerks to local sheriffs. That change was prompted by concerns that the state licensing agency's procedures had infringed on people's privacy rights.
Nixon noted the change in concealed carry permits -- not the school gun-safety programs -- while announcing he was signing the legislation. Asked if he supported the NRA's gun safety course for first-graders, Nixon merely noted that it was optional.
"Allowing the local school districts to make those choices is appropriate," he said.
The legislation was one of several pro-gun measures passed this year by Missouri's Republican-led Legislature.
Nixon, a Democrat, vetoed a bill last week that would have allowed federal agents to be charged with state crimes for trying to enforce various federal gun control laws. The vetoed bill also could have landed Missouri journalists in jail for publishing the names of gun owners and would have let specially trained teachers and administrators carry concealed guns into schools.
But Nixon signed a less aggressive gun-rights bill last week, which allows state employees to keep firearms in their vehicles and fire chiefs to get local approval to carry concealed guns.
According to the NRA, more than 20 state legislatures have passed measures encouraging the use of its Eddie Eagle course in schools since the gun safety program began in 1988. Ohio became the first state to provide financing for it about a decade ago. But Missouri is among just a few states -- including North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia -- to endorse the program with state laws.
The program includes a video in which an eagle character teaches children four basic rules if they see a gun: "STOP! Don't touch. Leave the Area. Tell an Adult."
"It's teaching a great safety message to children that could possibly save their life," said Eric Lipp, the NRA's national manager of community outreach.
In many cases, Lipp said, the course is taught by police serving as school resources offices and the materials are provided for free by the NRA. He estimated that the program has been used in thousands of schools.
Some of Missouri's school teacher and administrator groups took no position on the legislation, largely because it's merely optional. It was unclear how many Missouri schools already are using the program, or whether the official allowance for it in state law will encourage more to do so.
"How many districts will do this is anyone's guess," said Brent Ghan, a spokesman for the Missouri School Boards' Association.