How a Pop-Tart Triggered a Gun Law

Mar 27, 2014 at 4:00 PM ET

About a year ago, 11 weeks after the Newtown massacre, a 7-year-old Maryland boy named Josh Welch was suspended from school for biting a Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun. The story quickly became a minor sensation—generating coverage from outlets as varied as Fox and The Huffington Post—and several more followed in its wake. A 5-year-old Massachusetts boy got in trouble for building a gun out of Legos. Another child was suspended for making a shooting gesture with his finger. A third, a little girl in Pennsylvania, was sent home for bringing a bubble gun to school and accused of making a “terroristic threat.”

Gun rights advocates such as the National Rifle Association argued that teachers and administrators, driven by post-Newtown anxiety, were harming unwitting children by broadly interpreting “zero tolerance” policies—the result of a 1994 federal law mandating a one-year suspension for any student caught with a gun on school grounds. The NRA ran regular blog items with titles like, “When ‘Zero-Tolerance’ Makes ‘Zero-Sense,’” creating the perception that children across the country were being persecuted for playing cowboy games.

Last week, the state legislature in Florida—not Maryland—brought the hysteria to a fever pitch with the passage of a “Pop-Tart” bill. It specifies that children cannot be punished for “brandishing a partially consumed pastry or other food item to simulate a firearm or weapon,” or “possessing a toy firearm or weapon made of plastic snap-together building blocks.”

On Monday, Emily Miller, a popular columnist for the conservative Washington Times, praised the measure, saying, “Now Florida is leading the nation in stopping this madness.” Miller is the author of last year’s Emily Gets Her Gun…But Obama Wants to Take Yours. On the book’s cover, she’s clad in a pink cocktail dress, toting a semiautomatic handgun.

In her column, she floats the uncorroborated claim that “over the past year, schools have increasingly punished children for playing games that involve pretend firearms,” an apparent justification for the Pop-Tart bill. I phoned her, wanting to know how she concluded that kiddie gun persecution was a growing trend.

“You’re a reporter?” Miller replied. “And asking me to tell you my sources and sourcing? Feel free to call my editor if you have questions about our accuracy.”

Instead, I called Dennis Baxley, the Florida state representative who sponsored the bill. Baxley, a Republican, is a favorite of the NRA, which has spent tens of thousands of dollars in support of his campaigns. I wondered if there was any statistical basis for his bill—were children, in fact, “increasingly” being punished “for games that involve pretend firearms”?

“I don’t think anybody has the accumulated data on it,” he said. “Just stories and anecdotes.” So why the Pop-Tart bill? “We just felt like teachers and administrators needed help clarifying the zero-tolerance code.”

Reports in Florida newspapers, however, ambiguously stated the bill was “NRA-supported.” “They’d been involved early on,” admitted Baxley. He added that he “gave committee members” information from Marion Hammer, who runs the NRA’s Florida lobbying operation and is the godmother of Stand Your Ground. “I think good information comes from everywhere,” Baxley said.

And what about the young Maryland boy, Josh Welch? He’s back in school, and after playing the role of second-amendment martyr, he received a prestigious award: a free lifetime membership in the NRA.

(top image by Matthew Borgatti)