Monday, May 5, 2014

My Visit to the Shooting Range

The Morristown Gun Club is a ten-minute drive along Highway 60 west of Faribault, Minnesota, in the southwestern corner of Rice County. The scenic highway passes Cannon Lake just west of Faribault, and continues on across numerous wetlands past Sakatah Lake and into LeSueur County. The Sakatah-Singing Hills State Trail, a 41-mile paved bicycle trail along the former route of the Chicago Great Western Railroad, runs parallel to the highway until Madison Lake, 20 miles to the west.

Herons fly languidly over the highway as I drive out to Morristown on a Sunday afternoon in early May. With numerous wetlands and lakes, large and small, this must be a paradise for waterfowl—and for waterfowl hunters. 

At the edge of Morristown (population 984), a bright yellow billboard (“5,000 GUNS”) points the way to the gun club, another two miles or so across the rolling fields. At the end of a gravel road, a large cannon marks the entrance to Ahlman’s gun shop and the gun club. A yellow sign on the base of the cannon quotes selectively from the Second Amendment, leaving out the clause about a “well-regulated militia.”

At its May 12 meeting, the Northfield School Board will vote on a proposal from the Activities Committee to adopt clay target shooting as a varsity sport. The sport will be open to middle school and high school students, and to both boys and girls, and will meet and compete on Sunday afternoons at the Morristown Gun Club.

When the proposal was first presented to the Board on April 28, there was naturally serious concern about the school district sanctioning an activity that involves firearms. This concern was intensified by the school shooting at Newtown in 2012, and brought even closer to home last week when authorities in Waseca, Minnesota, discovered a seventeen-year old high school student stockpiling firearms and explosives in a plot to massacre his classmates. Waseca is only about 15 miles south of the Morristown Gun Club, and the threat of gun violence was very much on my mind as I drove past the massive cannon at the entrance to the club.

As Danny Franklin pointed out in a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post, since the tragedy at Sandy Hook, 20 states have passed less restrictive gun laws. Most recently, the governor of Georgia passed a law that allows guns to be carried virtually everywhere in the state, including schools, churches, bars, and airports. Clearly the constitutional right expressed on the base of the gun club’s cannon—that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”—is regarded by many people as an absolute right that admits of no exceptions, even to prevent unimaginable tragedies such as Sandy Hook. Meanwhile, in the sixteen months since Sandy Hook, there have been over seventy shootings at schools and colleges in the United States. Waseca had the potential to be the deadliest.

As I stopped the car, silencing the radio in the middle of a Mozart symphony, I could hear the sound of shotguns being fired. I got out of the car and walked toward the sound. At the shooting range, I was greeted by a coach who fitted me out with earplugs and eye protection and took me to watch the team in action.

There are stations for three squads on the range, with five shooters on each squad. The shooters take turns loading and firing, so that on each squad only one gun is loaded at a time. At all other times, the guns are unloaded, and carried with the muzzles up. In the photograph below you can see how the squad is arranged, and in the brief video you can see—and hear—a squad in action, as each shooter in turn calls out “pull,” the clay pigeon is released, and the shooter fires.

The teams in the clay target league are co-educational, and several girls participate on Northfield’s team (which is currently a community education and recreation program, not a varsity sport). It was interesting to watch a large, broad-shouldered football player shooting next to a slim, pony-tailed girl in a Science Olympiad letter jacket. The girl happened to be having a rough day, but there is nothing inherent in the sport that gives boys a competitive edge over girls. Boys and girls compete by exactly the same rules. There are currently 16 participants in the sport statewide who have hit 50 consecutive clay pigeons in competition. Two of those athletes are girls, which only reflects the fact that fewer girls choose to participate in the sport. All of the team members I spoke to valued the fact that clay target shooting demands discipline and concentration rather than size, strength, agility and speed.

I have to admit that I arrived at the gun club feeling a little nervous about being around so many teenagers with firearms, but what I found on the target range immediately put me at ease. I found a carefully controlled and well-supervised environment in which safety was the highest priority. I found competent and attentive coaches who wanted to bring out the best in each member of the team. I found young people who were learning safety, discipline, and responsibility, and enjoying themselves in the process.

As one eighth-grade girl on the team told me: “Trapshooting is not a violent sport and doesn’t encourage violence in any form. Quite the opposite: it teaches safety and responsibility.”

Of course, my visit to the target range didn’t ease my deep-seated concerns about gun violence. Guns are inherently dangerous, and amplify the dangerous and unpredictable tendencies of human beings. I still left thinking about the seventeen-year old in Waseca whose plot to commit murder surprised so many of his classmates who considered him a friend.

But if guns are going to be in the hands of young people for legitimate sporting purposes, participating on the clay target team is the kind of experience I would want them to have. I would want them to be part of a supportive community that emphasizes safety, responsibility, and personal growth.


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