Cobb school board member Dr. Jaha Howard took to Facebook this week to point out what he said is an out-of-place message in the form of a souvenir passed out at the Cobb Chamber of Commerce’s Military Appreciation Luncheon on Tuesday.
Howard’s social media post, sent from his public school board Facebook account, set off a firestorm of comments.
The crux of the issue was that one of the event’s major sponsors, Adventure Outdoors in Smyrna, left in each seat a hat with a store logo depicting a hunter, deer and fish on the front and the words “GUNS R FUN IN SAFE HANDS” on the back. The back of the hat also depicted a pair of hands holding a handgun.
“What kind of message is this? Who thought this was ok? Am I supposed to wear this around the neighborhood?” Howard’s Facebook post, paired with photos of the hat, read in part. “As a citizen, I value the right to own and use firearms. I’ve done my fair share of hunting growing up. I value our ability to defend ourselves and even the sport of it all. However, as a school board member, we consistently send zero tolerance messages to our children about firearms. My 7-year-old daughter already gives me detailed instructions about code red drills at school. For me, this image is a bit disturbing and seems very out of place. I’m open to constructive criticism on this. What do you think? What’s the solution?”
On Thursday, hours after a 16-year-old student of Saugus High School in Los Angeles County, California, opened fire on his classmates, Howard told the MDJ his intention with his post was to open a dialogue about the changing norms of society. He said his hope is that Cobb can become more aware of the perspectives of others, and that, in an era of frequent school shootings, community leaders will consider “with a high level of sensitivity,” how they choose to promote themselves.
For his part, Mitch Rhoden, chairman of the Cobb Chamber of Commerce, said the purpose of the Military Appreciation Luncheon is to support members of the military. He said the chamber appreciates its sponsors, adding that it’s important to stay focused on the topic at hand — recognizing military members.
A majority of those who commented on Howard’s Facebook post chastised him and questioned the connection he’d made between the hat and his role as a school board member.
“This is not related to schools, kids were not at the event, thus not exposed to the give-away items you could have left there, so why is it a point of discussion on a school board member page? If you have issue with this take it up privately with the event organizers and handle it without politicizing it in the wrong forum,” one comment reads.
Said another: “I think from the responses that you are the only person who found the image ‘disturbing.’”
While in the vast minority of the nearly 300 comments accrued by Friday at 3 p.m., others agreed with the school board member.
“I wonder if they would like ‘drugs are fun, when prescribed,’ since we are coming up with irresponsible slogans,” wrote one commenter.
Jay Wallace, president and CEO of Adventure Outdoors, and his son, Eric Wallace, who manages the Smyrna outdoor sports store, said this year was the third that their company had sponsored the chamber’s Military Appreciation Luncheon.
The father-son duo said they always give away a souvenir, and this year’s just happened to be a hat. They said the act was not political until Howard made it that way.
“I challenge him as far as his sincerity. It appears to me that he’s just looking to stir up an issue. And I don’t understand teaching fear (of guns) over education. That’s what we’re about. We want people to be educated and have respect for firearms,” Jay Wallace said. “We were not at a school function. He put the connection there.”
Jay Wallace said the hat has been available in his store for more than a year, and the phrase on the back goes hand in hand with the company’s commitment to gun safety.
Eric Wallace said unlike any other firearms retailer in Georgia, Adventure Outdoors, which has an indoor gun range, offers free gun safety and education courses monthly. Anyone can stop in, and attendees aren’t required to make a purchase.
In response to critics who have asked why he didn’t bring his concerns with the Adventure Outdoors logo directly to the Wallaces before taking to social media, Howard issued a statement to the MDJ, saying he is confident that he and Jay Wallace can sit down together in the near future “to help chart a better, more inclusive way forward regarding our gun culture.”