March 7, 2005
Jonathan Dean, 12, yanks on the action slide to load the 20-gauge shotgun, then sights down the length of the barrel.
"Pull," he calls softly.
The 5-2, 104-pound boy barely flinches as the shotgun recoils against his right shoulder. He’s found his mark: The 4-inch clay disc shatters in the darkening sky of the East Valley.
Jonathan is smaller and has less experience than many of the 118 boys and girls who attend statesponsored shotgun training at the Red Mountain Trap and Skeet club just north of Mesa.
But he’s already thrilled with the experience, and looking forward to a possible hunting trip later this year.
There’s only one downside to attending the program at 6 p.m. every other Thursday.
"It kind of interferes with my homework," says Jonathan, a student at Mesa’s Poston Junior High School.
Gun-rights advocates say they have the answer to Jonathan’s problem. They want public schools to teach students how to use shotguns and rifles. With the help of Arizona Game and Fish officials, firearms enthusiasts have been quietly shepherding a bill through the Legislature that would encourage schools to offer a semesterlong elective, combining the use of laser replicas on campus and field trips to shooting ranges.
Landis Aden, a lobbyist for the Arizona State Rifle and Pistol Association, said the class would teach children safe ways to deal with the kinds of weapons he says are found in up to half of Arizona households.
"It’s a tool, it’s an implement, just like power tools or saws or screwdrivers," Aden said. "Different tools for different jobs, obviously. Once you take the black magic out of it or the forbidden object thing out of it, the temptation to fool with it will lessen quite a bit."
But some gun control advocates and public health experts are shocked lawmakers are considering such a policy.
A decade of school shootings climaxed by the killings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., has prompted rigid crackdowns that lead to suspensions for bringing even a water pistol to class.
Dr. Mary Rimsza, who heads the statewide Child Fatality Review Program, said all available scientific research indicates there’s no "safe" way for schools to teach children about guns.
"Handling guns safely are the responsibility of adults, not the child," said Rimsza, a medical doctor and research professor of health management and policy at Arizona State University. "Any of these educational programs really are moving the responsibility to the child."
In the past, rifle and pistol clubs were common on high school campuses. But they disappeared as urban areas expanded and high school violence exploded on the public’s conscience.
Arizona law allows schools to offer firearms safety training for children 10 and older. But in the East Valley, only Apache Junction does so and that’s a program that focuses on urging children to avoid guns and asks their parents to keep weapons out of reach.
Parents can also enroll children in 20-hour hunter education classes. But that program attracts a relatively small percentage of the state’s students.
So Laden and Alan Korwin of Scottsdale, an author of books about gun laws, crafted a bill to encourage schools to introduce rifles and shotguns to their students.
While advocates talk about gun safety, the bill also has a political angle. The voluntary class would have to include instruction on the value of the Second Amendment and the gun-rights clause in the state constitution.
"I’d be particularly pleased if schools would choose to have this program because it really does talk about the role of firearms to preserve peace and freedom and the constitutional roots of the right to keep and bear arms," said Sen. Karen Johnson, R-Mesa, the bill’s lead sponsor.
Laden and other supporters said they didn’t work with any education officials while drafting the bill. Several East Valley school districts appeared to be baffled by the idea last week.
"We tend to focus our precious class time on the state standards," said Kathy Bareiss, spokeswoman for the Mesa Unified School District. "I can’t say if this would be included without more information."
But Game and Fish officials believe there would be a groundswell of interest if the bill passes.
When Jonathan Dean’s after-school shooting program — Scholarship Clay Target — started in September, state officials expected only about 125 kids to register in the first year.
The program already has grown to more than 500 members and more shooting ranges around the state will be added in the coming months.
Don Winslow, chief of the Game and Fish education division, said a similar program would fit into a school’s mission because rifle shooting is an Olympic sport and some universities offer full-ride scholarships to top marksmen.
But critics said children have little impulse control and a sense of invincibility that means more exposure to firearms will invite more trouble.
"There has been nothing developed so far that has been shown to be safe for children to be ‘educated’ in that fashion with guns," said Hildy Saizow, president of Valley-based Arizonans for Gun Safety.