News & Politics

Firearm Industry Sets Sights on Young Hunters

Motivated by a nationwide decline in hunters, industry-sponsored hunter's education classes are enticing record numbers of kids to take up the sport.
The firearm industry is on the hunt for young shooters. While the National Rifle Association has a long history of reaching out to the Boy Scouts, 4H clubs and other youth organizations, it is only recently that the industry's efforts have taken shape and gathered momentum in schools across the country, with rifle teams and hunter's education classes enticing record numbers of youngins to take up the sport.

The push is likely motivated by a decline in the number of hunters nationwide. From 1982 to 2001, the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife reported a 22.2 percent drop in licensed hunters. However, by reaching out to lawmakers, concerned sportsmen and state park and wildlife agencies across the country, the industry is managing to reclaim its political and financial future from "anti-gunners," as they call them, with a clear message: "When introducing kids to hunting, earlier is better."

"Studies show that it's harder to introduce children to hunting the older that child gets," says Bill Brassard, managing director of the National Shooting Sports Foundation's (NSSF) Department of Safety and Education. The NSSF is the firearm industry's largest trade association. A "State of the Industry 2007" address from NSSF President Doug Painter, posted recently on their Web site, focuses almost exclusively on the need for young recruits and the association's wide-ranging efforts to reel them in.

One measure of the campaign's success has been the infectious growth of the association's Scholastic Clay Target Program, which organizes skeet and trap shooting contests for elementary to high-school-aged kids. Backed by direct donations from major ammunition and firearm manufacturers including Remington, White Flyer and Berretta, the program boasted 8,300-plus participants in 41 states last year.

"We see it as a gateway sport," said Josh Sugarmann of the Violence Policy Center, a DC research and advocacy organization. "The goal is to get the kids hunting and buying firearms." The average hunter, according to NSSF data, spends $17,726.59 on hunting equipment in his or her lifetime.

A second element of the campaign is the promotion of Hunter's Education programs -- both in and out of schools -- through supplying state park and wildlife agencies with program grants and instructional materials.

"The kids think it's neat. They like anything that's new and interesting and different," said John McNeil, the principal of Lincoln Junior High in Plymouth, Indiana. Although the school has introduced hunting during PE classes off and on for years, it wasn't until last fall that it became a formal seminar -- a move that caught the attention of some parents.

Aimee Falls described being "shocked" and "offended" when she looked in her 13-year-old daughter's schoolbag to find a copy of "Today's Hunter." She tried to rally other parents to speak out against the class, with limited success, and called the local media.

"This class teaches them how to use the gun, how to load the gun," she told reporters, "I do not feel comfortable with them knowing this information."

Principal McNeil responded by promising that parents will be asked to give their consent in the future.

In spite of parent concern, Indiana Department of Natural Resources Conservation Officer Ken Dowdle, who teaches the hunting course at Lincoln Junior High, said he has noticed a growing interest in hunting classes: "There probably isn't a county in Indiana that doesn't have it in at least one of their schools."

Classes are becoming more and more prevalent throughout the country, as well. The March issue of Guns and Ammo reported a new program getting off the ground recently in Juneau, Alaska in Floyd Dryden Middle School's sixth-grade class, while in Kansas, the Department of Wildlife and Parks has recently developed a 'Hunters Education in our Schools' program, devoted entirely to creating and promoting the classes in public schools. The effort includes matching hunter's education to state curriculum standards, so that it can easily fit into PE, science or even shop classes.

In Kansas, class instruction includes having students use computer games and either live firearms or Lasershot rifles -- firearms that have been converted to shoot lasers instead of live rounds.

In other places, such as Dowdle's class in Indiana, guns are out of the question. Dowdle limits his props to the Hunter Education books, an occasional defunct or disassembled rifle, and hunting videos -- a popular teaching tool in Indiana and other states. The NSSF creates many of the videos used in hunting classes and shipped over 7,500 last year alone.

Though their teaching methods may be different, conservation officers say they have the same goals in mind: teaching the value of wildlife management for those who choose not to hunt and teaching safety to those who do.

"We want them to know how to safely handle those firearms, or what to do when they come across firearms in the home," said Monica Bickerstaff, coordinator of Kansas' program.

But violence prevention experts say teaching gun safety in order to prevent accidents is counter-intuitive.

"Only 5 percent of gun deaths are accidental," said Deanne Calhoun, Executive Director of Youth Alive, a violence prevention organization in Oakland, California. "It is ridiculous to think there is this type of a program in a school. It isn't a big health issue for kids."

Calhoun pointed to the latest data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which states that while 2,825 children and teens were killed with firearms in 2004, only 143 of those deaths were accidental. Even among the white population, which accounts for the vast majority of hunters, the ratio of suicides and homicides to accidents is 14.5 to one.

"People clearly are profiting off of the violence that is out there," Calhoun added. "What we'd like to do is find a way to turn off the faucet, to stop the guns from getting in the hands of kids in the first place."

Jim Bulger, Hunter Outreach Coordinator for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, agrees that these programs are not a good idea in an urban setting. "In Denver, you don't need a parking lot full of kids with shotguns, but out here, [in a rural area], a kid might need to kill a coyote or two that's bothering his Daddy's livestock."

Bulger says his program has also helped reach out to urban youth, however, in order to offer them exposure to and appreciation for nature.

"We just finished taking eight kids," he said. "They didn't kill a thing all day and they didn't care." He said that they were so appreciative of the experience that one of the youngsters wrote a two-page thank you letter to the man who donated use of his land to the program.

Many hunters argue that without them, many state and federal parks wouldn't even exist.

Many state wildlife agencies depend on hunting licenses and firearm sales to stay afloat, creating an even bigger push for hunting promotion among youth.

"That is the next generation that is going to be buying licenses and equipment, all of which provide funds that go back into wildlife conservation in state agencies," said Brassard of the NSSF.

"Hunting license fees and Pitmann-Robertson [a federal excise tax on firearms] essentially runs the department," said Wayne Doyle, Hunter Education Coordinator for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.

Thanks to the NSSF's aggressive campaign efforts, hunting licenses probably won't evaporate any time soon. In addition to its core promotional strategy, the NSSF has administered $1.7 million to 33 states in the past four years for projects creating designated land for youth hunting as well as promoting youth hunting through special events and advertising campaigns.

The national Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies hosted an "Industry Summit" last December, bringing together wildlife agency and firearm industry leaders to discuss, according to the AFWA website, "building better communications between parties, pursuing more visible marketing strategies, and gauging the long-term vision and use of these funds."

The NSSF is also increasing related lobbying efforts. Since 2004, the Families Afield initiative has been working to change local laws to offer "additional hunting opportunities for youth." Already, they have succeeded in 12 states.

Laws passed in Michigan and Ohio have instituted an apprentice program, in which young hunters can join their adult counterparts without completing a hunter's education course. In Michigan, legislators additionally lowered the minimum hunting age. Thirty states currently have no minimum.

According to the NSSF, "First year results show real promise: more than 18,000 apprentice licenses were sold in Michigan, plus nearly 10,000 in Ohio in 2006. These 28,000 new hunters suggest a 26 percent jump in the two states' combined population of hunters age 15 or under."

Examples like these abound; yet somehow the NSSF's efforts to seduce young hunters have slipped under the mainstream media's radar -- a surprise, considering the story is not so new. In fact, it was back in 1996 that the NRA's former President Marion Hammer called for "an old-fashioned wrestling match for the hearts and minds of our children." Eleven years later, with the help of the industry, hunters, teachers and other state agents, it looks like they have a fighting chance.
Jessica Pupovac is an adult educator and independent journalist living in Chicago.