Teaching Gun Safety Through Hands-on Experience

By Beacon Staff

Click the image or use the arrows to see photographs from a 4-H Club shooting sports night at the Flathead County Fairgrounds.

Pat McVay, a pioneer of Montana’s hunter education system, thought something was wrong with teaching kids about hunting but not fully teaching them how to shoot a firearm. To learn, he believed, they needed to actually shoot.

So in 1984 McVay started the program that is today known as Flathead County 4-H Shooting Sports. Don Anderson, who runs the club, said it was the first of its kind in Montana. Now similar kids programs are found throughout the state.

While shooting sports have grown in popularity as a competition, Anderson said his courses still operate off of a basic premise preached by McVay for years: To teach gun safety, kids need to have live-fire opportunities.

“They’re always going to wonder,” Anderson, an owner of Anderson’s Masonry Hearth and Home, said. “It’s that curiosity that gets kids in trouble.”

With live-fire, the curiosity is nipped at the bud. Kids learn the fundamentals of gun safety through first-person experience, something that can’t be taught in books or classes. Today, Anderson said, regular hunter education programs also include live-fire sessions.

Safety is certainly the foremost emphasis at Flathead County 4-H Shooting Sports, but the competition and fun aspects are what keep many kids coming back. Twice a week at the Flathead County Fairgrounds from November through February, Anderson and a team of coaches hold practice sessions for various styles of archery, air pistol shooting and air rifle shooting.

Up to 200 kids total participate in Anderson’s shooting sports, including about 50 on any given Monday or Thursday evening during the season, from 4:30 p.m. 7:30 p.m. It is the biggest program in the state, Anderson said. Participants pay $2 per discipline to help fund the club, which is administered by the Flathead County Extension 4-H program, but is self-supporting.

Kids, ranging from ages 9 to 19, choose from different styles of archery, such as recurve, barebow, primitive, limited and unlimited. For the air pistols and air rifles – pellet guns that make a popping noise when fired – there are different categories based on how a shooter is positioned, as well as timed events.

Small targets are positioned 10 meters away for most events, though some involve different distances. Each event has a certain scoring system. To tell where the tiny targets are being hit, coaches use binoculars, even though they’re only 30 feet away. Kids are grouped according to their age and ability level.

The targets and shooting areas are arranged inside the fairgrounds’ main hall. From mid-November through the end of February, Anderson’s club and the fairgrounds have an agreement to use the space. In addition to the shooting space, the program sets up computers to keep track of scoring and other records, and uses the space for its other needs, such as trophy cases.

“The fairgrounds are great to us,” Anderson said.

Nellie Ward, 18 and from Columbia Falls, has participated in shooting sports for five years. Her initial interest was piqued on a teen retreat where she was introduced to archery. She joined the Flathead club and then moved on to rifles and pistols.

Last year, Ward was on a Montana team that won first place at a 4-H national competition in Nebraska in pistol shooting. There were two girls, including Ward, and two boys on the team – all from Anderson’s club. Their medals add to the many awards and trophies won by the Flathead County 4-H Shooting Sports club over the years.

There are tournaments across the country sponsored by organizations such as 4-H, the National Rifle Association and the American Legion. Ward hopes to qualify for more.

“It gives you a sense of accomplishment,” Ward said. “Some people just hunt to hunt, some people just run to run, some people just bike to bike – they enjoy it. This is kind of like that.”

Anderson said he has 20 or more coaches who specialize in different disciplines. They take a training course and volunteer their time. Most are hunters, Anderson said, and many are parents who had children that went through the program.

“Their kids have grown up and gone on, and the folks stay behind,” Anderson said.

Sandy Evenson has had four kids participate in the club, including her 10-year-old daughter Tia, who is a deadeye with a pistol. Evenson said her family has long respected McVay, the club’s founder. She believes the club provides opportunities for kids that they wouldn’t otherwise have.

One of Evenson’s daughters could have gone to college on a shooting sports scholarship, but pursued other interests. And her kids have been able to travel to tournaments and meet people across the country. There is also the possibility of making the Olympics, she said.

“This is a great program,” Evenson said.

Anderson has helped with Flathead County 4-H Shooting Sports for 14 years. He said he enjoys stepping back from the hustle and bustle of adult life and working with kids. The regular involvement with kids, he said, has kept McVay sharp and believes it does the same for himself. McVay is nearing 90 and is still active, Anderson said.

“For me, it’s really fun,” Anderson said. “I see it in Pat – just being around youth kind of keeps you young.”

For more information on the club, call the Flathead County Extension office at (406) 758-5553.

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