Sara Ahrens’ OffBeat: Lessons learned from the NRA Youth Sports Fest

One of my favorite events is the NRA’s annual Youth Sports Fest. For the past three years I have volunteered to help teach children how to shoot and handle firearms safely while having fun. This year, amidst controversy, the coordinator of the event decided to introduce an additional stage — .22 modern sporting rifle (MSR). I am certain there was some discussion regarding the appropriateness of having such a stage, given the negative political and media attention as of late. Fortunately, the organizers of this event didn’t succumb to the political pressures associated with a weapon system that is not only easy to operate and fun to shoot, but also boosts kid’s self-esteem.

Thanks to the introduction of the MSR stage, 171 children had the opportunity to experience the ease and wonder with which the rifle operates. Not one of the children that fired the MSR appeared to be afraid of it. As a matter of fact, the responses by the children who shot it included the following: quick target acquisition, gradually increasing rate of fire, running out of ammunition and huge smiles. Being able to accurately and quickly fire a weapon gave each child an obvious sense of accomplishment and pride, a similar boost to their self-esteem that is acquired with success in any sport.

This weekend, I was reminded of the inherent good nature of children. Children see and understand their surroundings with a clarity and honesty that rarely exists into adulthood. They have yet to develop motives and agendas, since those are developed through exposure to the negative opinions of parents, teachers and the media. While I watched children of all ages, races and genders shoot the MSR, it dawned on me that kids are incapable of personifying these rifles based on the characteristics of the operator. Children don’t see the MSR as evil because they understand that firearms are inanimate objects, void of intent and emotion. To them, it is simply a category of firearm that is completely customizable in color and options. These options allow shooters to shoot from positions like standing, prone and any position in between, with success. It also is a firearm that is used by their heroes, like military and law enforcement officers, who are tasked with protecting our freedoms.

My 11-year-old son, Michael, helped me realize that gun ownership, like all of our freedoms, require protection. Michael has an amazing mind and his ability to reason is well beyond his years. After this past weekend, I realized that he has matured. He has always been hesitant and resistant in inviting other kids to the NRA event. Even though my son is shy around children he does not know, he has preferred to be around strangers versus extending an invitation. He is competitive and a little insecure. I have encouraged him to invite others in the past because he is shy, but I now realize I have been approaching this issue all wrong.

I ran into a parent, who has children that are classmates of both my son and my daughter. We were both taking photos for our daughters’ prom and as we talked he told me that his son really wanted to shoot but he wasn’t sure how to get started. I told him that the NRA Youth Sports Fest was coming up in a couple weeks. Later, I hesitantly told my son the story and he wasn’t very pleased that his secret was out. His classmate did attend the event and both of them had a great time. I wondered if the positive experience changed Michael’s mind or if he still preferred to go alone? His response was unexpected!

My son said he was glad I had invited his classmate and that he actually regrets not having advertised it more this year, and in the past. He explained that he believes that there may come a day when he won’t be allowed to own a gun. He told me that he thinks the best approach to ensuring that he can always own a gun, is to get more kids into shooting. I was amazed that even at 11, he is able to understand that if a day comes when those who oppose guns outnumber those that don’t, this right may cease to exist. Our discussion led me to realize that even I hadn’t invited his classmate for the “right” reasons. I invited him because I like the family and wanted his son to have an opportunity to shoot, too. My thoughts hadn’t gone any further. The truth is that we all have the responsibility to positively promote firearms for the sake of protecting our rights in the future.

It seems like there is a lack of appreciation and understanding regarding both the MSR and the Second Amendment. Both share a real threat of extinction based on ignorant misconceptions about their applications and purposes. They are both personified as being evil and unnecessary.

An event like the NRA Youth Sports Fest is one forum where we can introduce and educate children and parents to the truth. I am grateful that this year, the organizers of this event didn’t legitimize the negativity that exists, and opted to include the MSR stage. I believe that education is the remedy. Both the coordinators and my son helped me to recognize that for all who cherish firearms — we have a shared responsibility to educate and encourage others to participate in firearms-related events if we hope to protect our rights for future generations.

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    The Women's Outdoor News, aka The WON, features news, reviews and stories about women who are shooting, hunting, fishing and actively engaging in outdoor adventure. This publication is for women, by women.