Opinion: Teaching American kids to shoot straight

Rifle shooting
Rifle shooting. Photo credit: Getty

OPINION: For two summers, I taught American kids how to shoot guns.

So it's little wonder that I pay close attention to each new high school shooting. It's no surprise I keep an ear out for the names of the shooters in these incidents - most recently, after 17 students and staff were murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Florida.

I wonder, did any of those impressionable pre-teens I taught ever pack a gun into their backpack, take it into school and start firing indiscriminately at their schoolmates?

By now, the kids I instructed in marksmanship at a California summer camp would be well into their 30s and presumably beyond schoolyard violence.

Unless they're now teachers. Or have their own children at school.

Or went dancing at a club in Orlando one night.

Or attended a country music concert off the Vegas strip.

It felt surreal at the time that this Kiwi, who had never handled a gun in his life, should find himself demonstrating to others how to fire one.

It was the early 1990s and I had taken a sabbatical from journalism to see a bit of the world. American summer camps were always looking for overseas staff, especially Kiwis and Aussies, and they provided a foot in the door of the big, beautiful, ridiculous US experience.

This was several years before Columbine, the bloodbath that really showed how vulnerable American schools were to this kind of atrocity.

The camp owners that hired me believed so many American households already had guns on the premises, it was safer to build some respect for these firearms than to have kids stumble across them, and accidentally shoot themselves or others.

On some level, that made sense, but in retrospect, maybe this was simply how the National Rifle Association indoctrinated young recruits.

Remember, the United States were founded on a culture of pioneers fighting tooth and nail to survive.

The newly arrived Europeans faced wild animals, indigenous tribes and vicious outlaws. Guns were the difference between life and death and - for better or worse - they became a staple of American life.

The camp I worked at, situated in a wealthy Pacific coast town, paid homage to those pioneering traditions, offering traditional programmes that also included horse-riding, archery and barn-dancing.

And yep, counsellors and campers even slept in log cabins.

When counsellors assembled for the season in the days before the campers arrived, the local fire chief, also a registered NRA instructor, would teach them how to handle the .33 rifles safely and how to pass that lesson on to kids.

The counsellors ranged in age from 18-27, and were mostly high school seniors or college freshmen. Campers were 5-13.

We would start by shaking a can of Coke, placing it on the range and then shooting it from a safe distance. It would explode spectacularly and we would explain that's what happened when a bullet hit a human, so don't try this at home, folks.

I've often wondered if campers actually found that demonstration to be more exciting than frightening, as was intended.

At night, the guns and ammunition were securely locked away. We had no incidents during my watch.

The closest we came to bloodshed on the range was when a family of quail once strayed behind the targets mid-shoot. While instructors tried to decide whether it was safer to cease fire or simply keep shooting, most of the campers instinctively stopped of their own volition, some in tears.

That incident gave me hope that these kids had indeed learned to treasure life, whatever the species.

This fascination with guns may seem strange to us Kiwis, leading our sheltered existence in our quiet corner of the world, but they are a way of life for Americans and an easy fix for the dangers that threaten their values, so they think.

That's why the NRA is so powerful.

One of the dumbest solutions to school violence I saw floating around social media last week was the proposed formation of an armed parent militia to guard their children against intruders.

Because what every school needs is more guns, right?

That was before President Donald Trump suggested arming teachers.

More guns may be the easiest (and most politically expedient) solution, but that doesn't make them the best answer.

I doubt teachers, already poorly paid and overworked, would embrace the prospect of having to shoot one of their students in an armed standoff some day.

It's certainly not what we had in mind when we doled out bullets at summer camp.

Grant Chapman is a senior online producer at Newshub.