When I began participating in 4-H Shooting Sports at age 10, I had limited foresight of the experiences the program would bring me. Throughout my nine years of involvement, I transformed from a young girl shooting an air rifle to a leader and four time national competitor in the disciplines of air pistol, small bore pistol, air rifle, and muzzleloader. I am grateful I was given the opportunity to grow through 4-H, representing the state of Missouri as a National 4-H Shooting Sports Ambassador for three years. I, among thousands of other individuals, serve as an example of the importance of youth learning concepts of firearm safety.
The topic of youth handling firearms can elicit strong responses, but, really it is all a matter of perspective. As an advocate for second amendment rights, I believe it is beneficial for children to learn to handle firearms at an early age under careful adult supervision. Not only does the individual gain understanding of how to keep themselves and others safe while managing the firearm, they also gain an appreciation for a sport that can last a lifetime.
For Jim Sappington, a certified 4-H Shooting Sports range officer and Columbia Parks and Recreation archery instructor, teaching youth to safely manage firearms goes beyond the shooting range.
“We are not teaching them to shoot,” Sappington said. “Rather they are learning to be a better individual. The firearm or bow is nothing more than a teaching tool.”
At 8 years old, youth can learn the principles of firearm and range safety through 4-H Shooting Sports. As someone who grew up through the program, I can testify that safety is the number one aspect implemented in the minds of participants. Before becoming involved at the range, youth complete a six-hour safety course.
An important acronym the youth learn is MAT. “M” represents the need to always ensure the muzzle, or barrel of the firearm is pointed in a safe direction. “A” is to keep the action open when not firing the firearm, marking that the firearm is not loaded with an open bore indicator if applicable. “T” is a reminder to always keep your finger off of the trigger, until ready to fire. These three concepts are instilled in youth from an early age and continue to be used for a lifetime.
Ralph and Mary Ann Gates own and operate Prairie Grove Shotgun Sports, a range just east of Columbia at the Millersburg exit off of Interstate 70. Their facility opened in 1992, allowing youth and families the opportunity to become involved in shooting sports.
Mary Ann Gates remembers her husband drawing the plans for the range on a napkin, and recalled how the idea evolved into creating a place where thousands have enjoyed the sport. She said shooting is a “level playing field,” not requiring athleticism many other sports require.
Sappington and Mary Ann Gates both said they find it to be most rewarding when youth begin to succeed in their discipline.
“We as coaches are not trying to build the winning shooter or archer,” Sappington said. “When the participant goes to the ranges, they go to compete against themselves.”
Shooting sports encompasses a wide variety of disciplines that challenge individuals to manage both personal and external factors.
For instance, coaches encourage youth to focus on their next shot, rather than the one that has already passed. Many youth find the lessons learned through shooting to apply to their lives. I reflect on my target books, mason jars filled with pellets and muzzle loading caps, and realize that I gained so much participating in 4-H Shooting Sports. I was learning how to safely handle firearms while competing to reach my goals, but more importantly, gaining immeasurable life skills, including: time management, goal setting, and public speaking.
The material possessions that display my commitment to the program serve as a reminder of the time I invested. However, my investment falls short of the investment my coaches made to direct me into becoming a leader. I look forward to mentoring the next generation of youth through the program, as it developed and inspired me in my individual and professional life.
I highly encourage participation in the sport. I went from having little knowledge of the field, to becoming a well-rounded individual, passionate about expressing the benefits of the program on county, state and national levels.