Author’s note: This is part one in a three-part opinion series on firearms in Utah.
A Cache Valley native, my grandfather P.R. Cole taught me my earliest lessons in firearm safety, just him and me. He showed how to load and unload, how to use the safety, and to always point the weapon in a safe direction. He mentored me every step of the way.
I can still remember his leathery voice near my ear the first time I shot his .22 long rifle.
“Keep it tucked tight to your shoulder,” he said. “Now squeeze the trigger slow. Let it surprise you.”
The soda can I was aiming at jumped on the hillside and I was hooked on target shooting.
Every time I tuck the stock of a firearm to my shoulder, a whisper of that memory returns. I’ll never forget his mentorship and the lessons he taught me – early and individually.
The four basic rules of firearm safety were taught over and over again in our family and home. The wording differs from teacher to teacher and program to program, but the rules are the same and can be remembered using the acronym TABK:
1. Treat every firearm as if it’s loaded.
2. Always point your firearm in a safe direction.
3. Be sure of your target and what is beyond.
4. Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to fire.
TABK — the four basic rules of firearm safety. If those rules are kept, firearm accidents cannot happen.
My dad also liked some snappy one-liners to remind us of how seriously we should take firearms.
“Guns are not toys” and “Only shoot at something you are willing to destroy.”
These mantras played and replayed in our household thousands of times during my childhood.
The basics of firearm safety are easy to learn and remember. Putting them into practice in a live fire situation is harder and requires lots of time, patience and attention. Ideally, a first-time shooter or hunter should have a mentor, and the best ratio for a beginner is one mentor to one learner.
In my opinion, firearm safety should be taught early and individually. The next best option is to teach locally, in small groups, with qualified mentors and engaged, serious students.
That’s why I disagree with the current motion under consideration in the Utah Legislature: HB-258. The bill itself is worded very soundly — it proposes a pilot program in willing school districts to teach the hunter’s safety model of firearm safety at the high school level. The bill calls on the state board of education to determine standards for curriculum and for qualified instruction.
Although I deeply respect the premise of teaching firearm safety, I feel this bill is misguided. Based on my personal experience, firearm safety and hunter’s education are both too simple and too complex to be taught adequately in a public school setting.
Basic firearm safety is as simple as TABK. It can be taught in 10 minutes in a variety of settings and is appropriate for nearly any age group.
Hunter education provides additional safety training, but still takes only about twelve hours to complete in the currently offered online courses. If taught in public school, students would not have any new class material to learn after the first few weeks of the term.
Of course, experienced hunters, shooters, and marksmen know book learning is only the beginning of firearm safety. Putting safety into practice during live fire scenarios is the real training. That training can be done in very basic ways at a firing range. But there are countless scenarios which cannot and should not be practiced at the range. They should be practiced in the actual activity that the shooter will be participating in.
Having a mentor teach skeet shooting, target shooting, and hunting tactics and safety would be the ideal way to educate a young person about firearm use and safety. But that education can take months or even years of careful mentoring. A school should be held responsible for such an undertaking.
The most frustrating part of the bill for me as a taxpayer is that the same basic program suggested already exists outside of public schools. The Department of Wildlife Resources hunter’s education program and mentorship program offers a great start to gun safety and training. Concealed carry courses are also offered locally and provide even more specialized training.
Most of these courses are already funded in part by the Pittman-Robertson Act and are reasonably economical. Hiring a teacher, using a school building, providing transportation to and from a firing range, and providing adequate firearms and ammunition for large classes of high school students would not be economical. The funding would either drain the already limited funds of schools or would most likely have to come from Pittman-Robertson funds. I believe those funds are very well used in the current form of hunter education and would not propose to alter that well-proven teaching structure.
If schools want to take advantage of the existing programs, a better option might be to organize an educational partnership rather than reinventing the wheel.
Again, I support the idea of making firearm safety education more widely available, especially considering the record number of firearms which have been sold in the past few years. My hope is that qualified mentors will help young people take advantage of the programs already in place.
My two pre-teen sons just completed their hunter’s education courses last week. This was not their introduction to firearm safety and it will not be the end of their training. We shoot targets frequently with our family and make sure to put our firearm safety education into practice every time we go into the field. We have hunting trips planned to help our boys improve. And my husband and I will mentor them – early and individually – every step of the way.
Kate E Anderson is a mother of five living in North Logan. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org