The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine has started a youth shooting course that will travel around the state.
BRUNSWICK — Riley Saunders said he’s like a lot of teenage boys. The 17-year-old from Harpswell likes guns and the idea of developing as a marksman. He even took a hunter safety course to learn how to handle a firearm. But it hasn’t been an easy hobby to pursue.
“My parents are anti-gun,” he said.
“I like learning this level of marksmanship,” Saunders said after shooting a perfect score from 30 feet. “I like the idea of competitive shooting. There’s nowhere else I could learn this. You don’t learn it in school.”
The first class of American Legion Post 20 is the vision of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, which created a youth shooting range at its Augusta headquarters last winter with grants and donations totaling $150,000.
The goal is to instill a greater understanding of firearm safety in youth and teach those who want to be hunters or competitive marksmen to shoot responsibly.
“You don’t need a million-dollar range,” said David Trahan, the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine executive director.
“A laser beam and pellets are more benign and better suited to young kids. It’s a safe environment. Firearm safety as it relates to hunting and shooting sports is a high priority for us.”
The shooting range in Augusta is equipped with a half-dozen mobile ranges with Kevlar-like backstops and catch basins, as well as archery sets, air guns and laser pistols, which fire red lights at targets on computer screens. All the equipment can be loaned to 4-H clubs, fish and game clubs, and American Legion posts around the state for similar shooting classes. The Brunswick post will create the prototype class, Trahan said.
Already, Legion posts in Auburn, Lebanon and Bangor have expressed interest in holding youth classes.
In addition, the group is working on finding a site to build an outdoor youth shooting range and fishing pond. Trahan said it will be a place to train kids in outdoor skills in many areas, from fly casting to orienteering.
Junior hunting license sales in Maine have declined in the past 35 years, from 23,000 in 1980 to 16,000 in 2000 and 11,500 in 2015. Bill Swan, the head of licensing for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said the decline can be misleading because more kids now buy a lifetime license, Still, those numbers are one reason the Alliance started the shooting classes.
“I’d be foolish not to be concerned with those numbers going down,” Trahan said. “My suspicion is kids have their noses in computers, not their lives. I think all outdoor youth programs are competing with computers. There are a thousand different unique and cool things to do in the outdoors in Maine. And we want to be a leader in introducing kids and parents to those opportunities.”
The Sportsman’s Alliance’s range opened last June and hosted more than 20 classes. The first class at a satellite location was held at the Brunswick American Legion post this winter.
Legion chapters across the country offer junior shooting sports clubs. The national program uses air-rifle training with certified instructors, who often are competitive shooters, said instructor Ed Stanhope, 72.
Dave Watson, president of the Brunswick post, said not all posts can afford to build a range and equip it with air rifles. The veterans at the Brunswick post wanted to start a junior shooting club two years ago but lacked resources.
Now with the Sportsman’s Alliance’s help, Watson said they hope to create the state’s first junior sport-shooting team. After the eight students finish the course, held in eight installments every two weeks, it will be offered to another eight students.
“It teaches responsibility, respect, all things good athletes should know,” Watson said. “How many times have we heard that a young person picked up a firearm and shot it at someone else by accident? This class gives them an awareness of the equipment so they know what they’re dealing with and they know what to do with it. That’s a big part of it.”
Stanhope started the youth class two weeks ago by reviewing safety measures, then offered encouragement to the novice shooters.
“Ginny Thrasher at 19 became the youngest woman shooter to win a gold medal at the 2016 Summer Games,” Stanhope said of the college freshman who won the 10-meter air rifle competition in the Rio Olympics, just four years after she learned to shoot.
Erryl Timblin, 9, is one of the students at the Brunswick post.
“I don’t mind the homework because I like reading,” she said. “And I like shooting. I like to see how I can do better. I’m not perfect. But I’ve learned a lot.”
Timblin, dressed in a black ballet skirt and pink fleece jacket, hit the 10-point circle from 30 feet out on nearly every shot. Then she ran through some of the golden rules of gun safety to prove she knew her stuff.
“When you’re outside, point the gun down or down range,” she said. “Always treat a gun like it’s loaded. If you find a gun, it might be, so leave it alone.”
Erryl’s mom, Luci Timblin, came to watch her daughter and 11-year-old son, Elliot, shoot. She said the course has been worthwhile.
“Elliot has a lot of energy. I thought this would be good for him to work on focusing,” Timblin said. “And Erryl already is focused and centered. So I thought it would be a nice outlet for her personality. And the points in gun safety are good. Plus, who knows? Maybe this will help with college.”