Review: Why I’m Rethinking Boy Scouts for My Son

Editor’s note: Naka Nathaniel is a former New York Times reporter and Eagle Scout who was named Cubmaster of the Year in Atlanta in 2017. The opinions expressed in this comment are his own. See more reviews on CNN.

Waimea, Hawaii

11-year-old Boy Scout, Manuel ‘Manny’ Carvalho, was shot and killed on August 28th at Camp Honokaia – where my son’s troop met every week. A police investigation determined that during an official Boy Scouts of America (BSA) event at a scout camp rifle range, the boy died accidentally after being shot by another unsupervised boy handling his parents’ loaded semi-automatic assault rifle. No charges have yet been filed in connection with the incident, although prosecutors are looking into possible criminal charges against the three adults.

In a statement to CNN, the BSA said it has “provided support to the family and the Scouting unit” following Carvalho’s death, and said it is cooperating with law enforcement to investigate the incident.

Since Carvalho’s death, my family has had a serious debate about whether or not to continue scouting. We have repeatedly questioned whether BSA’s values ​​align with our own. We’ve attended meetings with my son’s troop, and I’ve talked to scout leaders.

Although the BSA has admitted that Carvalho’s death was the result of an “accidental discharge of a firearm while participating in a Camp Honokaia Troop activity,” its policy regarding firearms for scouts remains unchanged. (In response to CNN’s disclosure, the BSA said: “Teaching firearms safety to youth and adults has been a cornerstone of the Scouting program for over one hundred years. We continually evaluate our programs to ensure they meet the highest standards of firearms safety and responsible use.”)

Simply put, guns and kids don’t go together. Children are not consistently concerned or alert enough to trust weapons that can kill instantly. However, the BSA’s “Guide to Safe Scouting” allows elementary school children, including first graders, to use BB guns and air rifles (while pocket knives are not allowed until third grade); middle schoolers can use .22 rifles, muzzleloaders and shotguns; and high schoolers can use handguns and high-caliber rifles, and participate in “Cowboy Action Shooting,” which involves using two firearms at once.

Speaking as a parent and long-time adult leader of Scout units, I am disappointed in the BSA’s lack of communication regarding this incident. The BSA has refused to use the volunteers it relies on to run the program, without providing guidance on how to talk to the children after the tragedy. And, speaking as an Eagle Scout, I am very disappointed that Scouting has not revised its firearms policy.

Even before Carvalho’s death, the BSA was no stranger to controversy. In 2020, the organization filed for bankruptcy amid a massive sexual abuse lawsuit. BSA’s $2.46 billion plan to file for bankruptcy was approved last month, but is being appealed. The legal move seemed to cause a lot of soul-searching and change, including a greater emphasis on youth protection training. Now, in the wake of Manny Carvalho’s death, more soul-searching and change must occur.

The BSA ultimately needs to get guns out of scouting altogether, which will take some time to accomplish, as there will undoubtedly be many who are resistant to the change. But in the meantime, scouting’s relationship with the use of weapons must change immediately.

Here’s a simple idea that can be implemented quickly: After race awareness in the summer of 2020, scouting introduced a new merit badge called Citizenship in Society, which Scouts must earn before advancing to Eagle. In the wake of Carvalho’s death, one significant action would be the introduction of the Gun Safety merit badge, which is awarded after demonstrating a child’s understanding and compliance with safety precautions. This badge should be required of all scouts and would be an important addition to the Rifle Shooting merit badge that scouts earn by demonstrating certain marksmanship related knowledge and skills.

For handgun training and safety, the BSA currently uses the National Rifle Association’s First Steps Manual to train instructors on NRA policies, including encouraging instructors to avoid the term “guns” when referring to what is clearly a weapon. The handbook states: “NRA instructors may refer to guns as ‘firearms,’ ‘pistols,’ ‘rifles,’ etc., but not ‘weapons.’ ‘Weapon’ has a negative connotation.”

The curriculum specifies that most scouts are allowed to shoot in the second lesson, while other NRA participants must wait until the third lesson to fire a weapon. To earn the Rifle Shooting badge, a scout must hit certain marksmanship targets using NRA shooting targets.

The BSA’s reliance on the NRA handbook highlights the long-standing relationship between the two organizations, dating back to 1910, when “pointing” appeared in the scouts handbook. Since then, the institutions have reinforced each other; The BSA has exposed generations of young scouts to shooting and gun culture and the NRA has provided weapons training policies that the BSA has adopted into its programs.

But in the long run, guns should be removed from the scouting experience and the BSA should cut ties with the NRA.

The BSA’s official position is that “shooting sports are a very popular activity for our young people. We encourage units to offer it as part of a year-round program, offering recreational shooting, not just merit badge instruction.” But in this era of mass shootings, there is no reason for the NRA to continue to promote children’s gun use through scouting.

In fact, encouraging kids to shoot should no longer be part of the skills scouting teaches. The use of a gun is not consistent with the Scout Law or the Oath, the guiding principles of the scouting program.

I have supervised children in the ranges and the safety instructions are repeated in each case. And despite those stark reminders, I inevitably ask the elementary school scout, “I just pulled the trigger. Why didn’t the BB come out of the gun?’ Then they take the gun and look at the barrel.

Every time, my heart beats out of my chest. Gun training will not make these young children mature or responsible enough to consistently practice the safe use of any type of gun.

If nothing changes after Carvalho’s death, it may be time for my family to quit scouting. And, so far, the BSA has shown no sign of letting up, or changing, its push for gun culture.

Taking my son out of BSA would have its downsides, to be sure. My brother and I are Eagle Scouts and have benefited greatly in our professional lives from the title. My son has learned skills and leadership lessons from scouting that will last a lifetime. But I don’t know that those benefits outweigh the risks of my son participating in an organization that doesn’t value gun safety.

However, there are reasons to expect that the BSA may change. Before my son was old enough to join the Cub Scouts in 2015, scouting finally dropped its homophobic policies. A few years later, the girls were invited to participate. I have been proud to be one of the voices that pushed these changes.

In terms of security considerations, I have also seen scouting changes. After a child died in a severe thunderstorm, adult leaders began emphasizing hazardous weather training.

Now, I want to see the BSA’s gun policy changes. And while we wait to see if this change happens, I will continue to advocate for Scout safety.

I am not the only one who recognizes the need for change. Other parents in my community have expressed their anger at Carvalho’s death, and young scouts have also spoken out. A brave and sensible kid asked at a BSA meeting, “If there hadn’t been a firearm in this incident, the scout wouldn’t have been shot, right?” Other scouts resisted the challenge, arguing that weapons and shooting sports should remain part of the programs. I want to encourage voices that encourage change in Scouting for the better.