EATONTON, Ga. — Nearly four dozen high school students gathered at the Rock Eagle 4-H Conference Center here on Saturday, at about the same time that another group of high school students gathered on an outdoor stage in Washington, D.C.
Those at the D.C. rally had come to demand gun control. Those here in Eatonton had come to do some shooting.
This .22 Rimfire Silhouette Exhibition Match had been scheduled long before 17 people were killed at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and therefore long before the survivors of that rampage had sparked a national protest movement. But even if this daylong test of marksmanship wasn’t deliberate counterprogramming, it did provide an illuminating counterpoint.
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There has been much talk since Parkland of the younger generation — the one that grew up hearing of shootings in other schools and participating in shooter drills at their own — and of how those teenagers are changing the conversation about guns. But every American generation is as multifaceted as the country itself, and the 44 high schoolers who took up their rifles in Georgia as their counterparts took up microphones in Washington also have something to say.
“No doubt a lot of this generation doesn’t think we need to have guns,” said Cole Cook, a ninth grader from Barstow County who has been shooting since his father first taught him at the age of 6. “I think they’re wrong. And I’m part of this generation too.”
Currently 4,500 children and teens participate in Georgia’s 4-H Shooting Clubs, says Craven Hudson, the shooting sports coordinator of Georgia 4-H. There are gun programs in 110 of the 159 counties in the state, he says, a ladder that introduces fourth through sixth graders to BB guns, seventh through ninth graders to air rifles and high school students to .22s, which are intended for hunting but can be adapted to shoot as semiautomatics. In a silhouette competition those rifles are aimed at tiny metal outlines of chickens, pigs, turkeys and rams, with two and a half minutes per round to knock down a cluster of each.
The several dozen competitors interviewed at Saturday’s event said that what attracts them to the program is not only, or even mostly, the guns.
“I love the fact that I get to compete against myself,” said 16-year-old Meaghan Moses, who had driven from Dublin, Ga., with her mother, sister and two coaches. She has had health issues that sometimes interfere with normal eating, but feels strong when she is shooting, which she does nearly every day. “She shot with her feeding tube more than once,” says her mother, Jennifer Renfroue. “She shot in the snow in Alabama last December. Her goal is to shoot in all 50 states.”
“Shooting has taught me how to focus better,” said Josh Drexler, also 16, a teammate of Cook’s from Barstow County. “I’ve learned patience and follow-through and teamwork and how to be a mentor to younger kids.”
One of the first things kids are taught is “We don’t use the W word,” his mother, Joann, says.
“It’s not a weapon, it’s a firearm,” says Josh. “The difference is intent. A weapon is something that is actively used to kill or hurt something or someone.” And that is far from the intent at this family event, where spectators bring shade canopies, sandwich coolers and lawn chairs and participants address all adults as “sir” and “ma’am.” Were it not for the background pops and clinks of bullets firing then toppling tiny metal animal shapes, it would be an atmosphere familiar to any parent who spends most of their time at travel-team soccer.
Though at soccer games there is not nearly the same amount of talk about safety. Hudson opens the event by reminding participants that they must wear ear and eye protection, makes mention of the location of the first-aid kit and asks if anyone among the attendees is trained as an EMT or first responder, “just in case. It’s never been necessary, but I always ask,” he says.
The emphasis on safety continues with every step of the event, as students must show that their guns are unloaded and safe before moving to the next target area.
“We are drilled in safety,” Cole Cook says. “If you are trained to use guns properly, then nothing’s gonna happen.”
Does that mean all gun owners should be as well trained as he is, and that guns should only be sold to those who prove they know how to use them?
“I would like people to be trained, but requiring it is against the Second Amendment,” says Cole’s older sister, Sydney, who wears red, white and blue boots when she shoots her custom red, white and blue rifle. “I think it’s our right as Americans.”
She says she objects to limits on gun ownership because they won’t work. “We used ours for good today,” she says. “If you take them from us, the bad people aren’t going to hand theirs over.”
So anyone should be allowed to buy any kind of gun?
“Well, not military grade. That should be specifically for the military,” she says. “Fully automatic military should be regulated. Everything else not.”
And what of bump stocks, which turn semiautomatic rifles like the one she uses into fully automatic ones?
“I don’t know how I feel about that,” she says.
As the metal chicks and turkeys fall and the hours pass, photos of gatherings against guns begin to appear on spectator cellphones. Not just the rally in Washington, which drew an estimated 300,000 people, but the one 75 miles away from here in Atlanta, where the line of marchers extended for miles.
“It’s their right to march, but I think it’s stupid,” said 16-year-old A.J. Williams, who learned to shoot from his father, a law enforcement agent, and who took up the sport because it is good training for the Marines. ”Let’s say they ban guns like they want. Well, terrorists can still get a gun.”
Others are more sympathetic, however.
“I understand why they do it — the poor kids are terrified,” says Joann Drexler, who mentions that she decided to pull her children out of the school system after Columbine. “That plus the fact that there was a live shooter near where we lived at about the same time,” she says, “and a neighbor who was a teacher at that school had to pull a kid into a classroom who’d been shot in the head. I said, ‘That’s it. We’re homeschooling our kids.”
That’s news to Josh, who says even though he is homeschooled, and therefore doesn’t have experience with the active shooter drills he hears described by his friends, he still spends plenty of time in public spaces but does not go through his days afraid. “I live with my two parents,” both of whom own guns and “know how to keep me safe,” he says. “And soon, when I turn 18, I will have a carry permit and keep myself safe.”
After the last competitive round is fired, two flags are brought out — the Stars and Stripes and the 4-H clover — and the Pledge of Allegiance is recited. Medals are given to the top five finishers, then everyone heads for the pickups, minivans and campers that brought them to the remote site that morning. There is talk of stopping on the highway for ice cream. Or in Macon for Krispy Kreme. There is worry about traffic.
“Get home safe” one mother says, as her car door slams closed. “Could be we hit some traffic from the march.”
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