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Shooting sports aims for safety, fellowship
By Karen Templeton
MSU Office of Ag Communications
MISSISSIPPI STATE – Focusing on safety, developing life skills and teaching good sportsmanship have made Mississippi’s 4-H Shooting Sports program popular with youth.
4-H Shooting Sports is a national program with more than 300,000 participants between the ages of 8 and 18. Almost 9,000 Mississippi 4-H’ers participate in the program, and more than 700 adult volunteer instructors and 4-H agents provide training and leadership. The 4-H’ers have the opportunity to learn to handle the shotgun, air rifle, .22 rifle, air pistol, .22 pistol, bow and arrow, and black powder.
“Our program isn’t just about using firearms,” said John Long, the program’s state coordinator and assistant Mississippi State University Extension 4-H youth development professor. “We teach safety, first and foremost, and provide an opportunity for youth to develop skills that serve them well for the rest of their lives.”
One such skill is demonstrating respect. 4-H’ers in the shooting sports program learn to respect peers, instructors and firearms.
“We have to help youth develop an attitude of respect and seriousness before we let them handle firearms,” Long said. “Instilling respect requires time and instruction and remains at the forefront of every activity.”
Trained instructors provide thorough directions on proper handling of firearms and give the children explanations on how the firearms work and are to be used.
Stu Wright, a Level II shooting sports instructor in Lowndes County, said it does not take long for safety to become second nature for the youth.
“We give them intensive safety training,” Wright said. “Once they’ve got it, they really live it, and safety becomes a part of everything else they do in life.”
Long reported that the Mississippi program has an excellent track record, with no youth injuries associated with the program.
“All statistics support the conclusion that shooting sports, under the direction of responsible and capable adult leaders, is a safe activity,” he said. “Much of our record is due to the care and attention our instructors give to safety. It always has and always will get top priority.”
Tom Ganann, a Level II shooting sports instructor in Leake County, has been volunteering with the program for almost 10 years. Ganann said the youth are open to the safety lessons.
“They are receptive to what we have to tell them, and they always put it into practice,” he said. “I have had no problems with getting the youth to take safety seriously.”
Shooting sports is a family affair for Ganann. His 15-year-old son participates in the program.
“Being involved in the program is an opportunity for families to spend time together, just like with other 4-H activities,” Long said. “Sometimes children’s involvement gets the parents interested and vice versa.”
The program caters to youth who are interested, including those with disabilities.
“There are some sports that kids with disabilities are unable to participate in,” Ganann said. “But many of them can target shoot, so this serves as the perfect sport for them.”
Senior 4-H shooting sports participants who score a minimum percentage in their event are invited to the State Invitational competition and eventually may represent Mississippi at the National 4-H Shooting Sports Contest. This year, the national competition was held in Kerrville, Texas. The Mississippi team took fifth place overall.
Ganann served as the .22 pistol team coach and was proud that his team took home second place in that area.
“It has been fun to see our team grow and improve over time,” Ganann said. “Actually, I think I’ve grown as much as the kids have.”
Wright said the social aspect of the competitions is beneficial to the youth and their families.
“The state and national championships give us a chance to meet kids and their families from all over the state,” he said. “Besides enjoying healthy competition, the kids get the chance to make friends outside of their district. Getting the chance to spend time with other kids around the state and nation is a nice reward for all the hard work they put into getting to the competitions.”
Long said that while all the competitions are important, youth gain something even more meaningful from the program.
“We aren’t aiming to produce just champion shooters, but rather, champion youth,” he said.