Thursday, February 9th, 2023
Thursday, February 9th, 2023

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Summer target shooting season: Youth firearms tips

Over Memorial Day Weekend, my dad and I enjoyed some quality time shooting a .22 rifle with my sister’s family and my three sons. My dad’s six grandkids adore him, and Mom laments (only half-jokingly) that he’s the biggest kid of the bunch when he’s playing with them.

But Bob Drieslein is plenty serious around firearms. A Vietnam veteran, he witnessed the consequences of poor firearms handling more than once during his 13-month tour in country, and he instilled in his sons extreme gun-safety protocol. We’re strictly by the book when shooting or hunting, and anyone who exhibits improper gun handling around me had better plan on a scolding.

I’ve said before that attention to firearms safety in this country has suffered in recent years. In the past, hunting introduced many people to guns, and firearms education requirements for sport hunting meant the vast majority of new firearms users learned and tested out on gun safety rules.

Today, we have the millions of new recreational shooters who join the sport as adults and have driven gun and ammunition sales through the roof. That’s great, and excise taxes on those sales have benefitted conservation and the out-of-doors immensely. I worry, however, about inexperienced adult shooters who’ve never learned basic firearms safety. Coupled with Hollywood movies that routinely exhibit poor, even reckless gun behavior, too few people understand the first rule of recreational shooting: safety first.

And there’s no excuse for that, especially when adult firearms education classes are available for older beginners. Any person of any age can take the classes in a traditional group setting or online at home.

But enough of my soapbox rants. Let’s talk youth shooting and how my family approaches firearms safety with the next generation. I firmly believe every American kid should take a firearms safety class simply to gain a basic understanding of guns. He or she may never touch one again, but too many people fear firearms. Any firearms safety class or website can summarize the basic rules, but here’s how I view them.

First, before you head to the range, sit the child down and discuss aiming and sight picture, safety basics, and acceptable behavior. My three boys, like most young lads, have a ton of energy, but they clearly understand: No horsing around when firearms are present.

Outside, take the shooting process slowly and deliberately, before and after each shot. Repetition breeds familiarity, so call out each step in loading, closing the chamber, then aiming and clicking off the safety. Then let the child move through the steps while you calmly and gently correct when necessary.

As for specific rules, here’s how they fall in line for me:

• Muzzle safety is No. 1. All firearms safety begins with muzzle control. Keep your firearm pointed in a safe direction at all times. No compromise here. Never point any gun at anything you do not intend to shoot. When recreational shooting, always keep your firearm pointed downrange.

• Treat every gun like it’s loaded. Better yet, assume that it is loaded. Never set a loaded gun down and unattended. A friend tells an upland bird-hunting story about a loaded shotgun on the ground. One of the dogs stepped on the trigger guard, clicking off the safety, then its toe wrapped around and fired the shotgun. Shot one of the other dogs. Freak accidents can and will occur if a loaded firearm is not kept under control at all times.

• Keep the finger off the trigger and outside the trigger guard until you’re ready to shoot. I don’t know if it’s human nature or modern video game culture, but increasingly, the default for many people is to place their fingers on the trigger. In the movies, people are running around all the time with their fingers on the trigger. My dad and I reminded the boys repeatedly: That’s all rock-and-roll, not safe firearms handling. Don’t place your finger on the trigger until you’re in position on target and intend to fire.

• Know your target. What’s beyond it, too.

• When recreational shooting, other shooters must remain behind the firing line until the shooter finishes, and the firearm is unloaded with the action open, chamber empty, and facing up.

The author watches while his son, Alec Drieslein, lines up the sights on a .22 Marlin last weekend.After every magazine, everyone is eager to see the results. This is a dangerous moment when people, kids especially, want to head downrange to view the target. That doesn’t happen until the above steps – unloading, chamber empty, action open, facing up – are complete. And while people are downrange looking at targets, nobody back on the firing line should be handling any of the guns.

• When someone hands you a firearm, demand that he or she open the action and prove that it’s unloaded. We repeatedly tried to hand the kids the .22 with the action open to test this rule.

• Require that everyone around you follow these same rules. This can be challenging – calling someone out for unsafe firing-handling practices. I’ve called out people older than me over the years for poor gun handling, and I don’t give a damn if I’ve hurt their feelings. Better their feelings than someone’s life.

• Wear ear protection. A little .22 rifle doesn’t deliver much report, but make ear plugs mandatory. Shotguns, handguns, and centerfire rifles demand earmuffs, and I have the kids wear them even when shooting a .22 just to establish the habit. There are more shooters running around with poor hearing and ringing ears than we'd like to admit, so stress ear protection at a young age.

Final thought: Get the girls out shooting, too. My sister, who’d never shot a gun before, rattled off an impressive group the first time she shot. Her 6-year-old daughter wasn’t quite ready to shoot, but increased her comfort level with firearms by watching her brother and cousins for 60 minutes at the range.

OK, one final plug: Youth ages 11 to 17 who successfully complete firearms safety certification can sign up to receive a complimentary three-month subscription to Minnesota Outdoor News. Click here for details.

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