Marine Master Gunnery Sgt. Kevin Myer, 46, works on shooting skills with his son Kevin, 8, at the Izaak Walton League's grounds in Stafford, Va., on May 16. (SHEILA VEMMER / STAFF)
Learning to safely and confidently fire a gun was once a rite of passage for most American youngsters. Whether gaining proficiency to help put meat in the cooking pot or defend family and home, the ability to handle a firearm marked a milestone in self-reliance.
Today's shooting sports — hunting, trap and skeet, precision marksmanship, and more — still offer abundant opportunities for families to learn about firearms safety and enjoy the outdoors or range together.
Figuring out just when it's appropriate to introduce a child to shooting, however, can be challenging.
Marine Master Gunnery Sgt. Kevin Myer, 46, began shooting and hunting with his father near their family's home in upstate New York "as soon as I could walk." He enlisted in the Marine Corps and now, with 28 years of service, works at Marine Corps Systems Command procuring infantry combat and support equipment.
He and his wife, Shannon, have two boys — Kevin, 8, and Shawn, 6. Myer introduced his sons to firearms slowly, first teaching them with BB guns, then graduating to low-recoil, .22-caliber rifles. The older boy has started shooting his new .410-bore shotgun and will move up to a 20-gauge shotgun this year.
The Myer family shoots at the Izaak Walton League of America range in Stafford, Va., not far from Quantico's sprawling military range complex. The boys are signed up for formal hunter education courses later this summer — courses that always include a healthy dose of firearms safety.
Retired Marine Col. Byron "Chub" Madden, who has taught hunter education on and around Quantico since 1987 and figures about 2,150 students have taken his courses over the years, estimates the average age that kids start shooting under adult supervision is about 10.
"A few 7- to 9-year olds can handle it, but age 10 is definitely better," he says.
Madden says 10 is also a good age for kids to start hunting under adult supervision but that younger children can handle it under ideal conditions, such as shooting from a well-designed blind.
Madden says a child must have the physical ability to safely operate a firearm before it's OK to start shooting.
"He or she must be strong enough to open the action, cock the hammer, etc., in a manner that will not endanger the hunter or others," Madden says.
In the 2001 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, about 80 percent of the 25,000 sportspersons surveyed said they had their first hunting experience between ages 6 and 15. State rules governing hunting ages vary widely. Some states have no minimum age for children to hunt, some make age provisions for certain types of game and others don't allow anyone under 18 to hunt unsupervised. In Virginia, for example, 12-year-olds are legally allowed to carry firearms and hunt on their own after completing a hunter education course.
But age is only one factor in deciding whether your child is ready.
"The next most important factor is the emotional maturity of the new hunter," Madden says. "They must fully understand that bad things can happen if hunters are not serious about safety while handling their firearms."
Assessing physical capabilities is the easy part, Madden says.
"They can safely load, aim and fire, or they can't. Exercises with dummy ammo will tell the story. The mental part is more difficult to determine. Much depends on how firearms are handled in the home and what values the family has placed on safety with firearms," he says.
David L. Dodson coordinates hunter education programs for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and leads many shooting events geared toward children.
"We have had no problems with any of these kids during live fire, but I think it is key that they are closely supervised," Dodson said during a Hunter Education Challenge where children ages 9 to 18 competed at rifle, shotgun and 3-D archery (in which archers shoot at life-size models of game animals).
"Supervised shooting, with proper safety training, can take place whenever a parent thinks a child is ready," Dodson said. "It is very safe, much as a teenager with a learner's permit is supervised and unlikely to have a traffic accident. Consequences for carelessness are similar with both activities."
The right gun
Recoil can be a scary phenomenon to a child, so firearms for novices are typically matched to the shooter's stature.
BB guns are a mainstay for most, easing the learning of how to properly and safely handle a gun. From there, it's hard to beat the .22-caliber rifle.
Madden said he is "a big fan" of the .22 for teaching shooting and hunting fundamentals.
"There is no recoil to punish the shooter. Ammunition is inexpensive, so the new hunter can shoot a lot," Madden said. "I recommend a bolt action. Allow the shooter to load only one round - no ammunition in the magazine. This is a one-shot, check-the-target, reload-and-fire-again drill."
For a light-kicking, big-game rifle, Madden recommends a bolt-action in the .243 or .260 calibers with a youth-sized stock.
When teaching kids how to shoot, Dodson and his team usually use .22s or 20-gauge or smaller shotguns.
"Some kids are just too small for the guns," Dodson said. "We always do some safety training before any kind of live fire and will not allow anyone who does not exhibit safe gun habits to shoot. Most of the time, we allow parents to determine if a child is old enough for supervised shooting activities."
A way of life
Madden says the number of women and girls taking to shooting and hunting is on the upswing.
"Now that the boys are hunting, I got my license, too," Shannon Myer said. "I want to be out there, sharing the experiences with them.
"Before I married, I knew if we had kids that hunting would be a family thing. It's a passion, a way of life. Kevin is teaching our boys not only to understand and appreciate wildlife, but also the potential dangers of hunting and the need for safe handling of firearms."
Kevin Myer's 83-year-old father, Mitch, recently bought each boy a new Rossi firearm.
"It's a family tradition," Kevin Myer said. "Grandpa buys them the first gun. [Eight-year-old] Kevin has shot the .410, but we're waiting a couple years for Shawn. My dad didn't want to wait, though. He wanted to ensure he got Shawn his first gun."
Keeping your family safe
Following basic precautions can help ensure firearms safety at home. For example:
• Store unloaded firearms and ammunition separately.
• Unload sporting firearms before they're brought into the home, and only load them outside the home.
Some families insist on locking all guns and ammunition in a safe. Others may use trigger locks or cable locks to prevent the gun from being fired.
Locking up firearms and ammunition is the safest course, says David L. Dodson, hunter education coordinator for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. But he has also observed that children seem less likely to try to get to firearms if their curiosity about firearms is satisfied.
Longtime hunter education instructor retired Marine Col. Byron "Chub" Madden says he's "not a big fan" of trigger locks and separate safes for guns and for ammunition.
"The family culture has to be that firearms are treated with respect, that really bad things can happen if firearms are handled in an unsafe manner. ... Kids must be taught that firearms are absolutely off limits unless an adult is there for supervision," Madden says.
"Every family member must be proactive in preaching the mantra of safe gun handling so it becomes second nature to the entire family — not just the adults and teenagers. ... Unsafe gun handling is a zero-tolerance matter. Kids must be taught to tell an adult if they see a firearm lying around anyone's home, and they must know they may not touch the firearm."
That notion is at the heart of the National Rifle Association's Eddie Eagle program, designed for kids in third grade and younger, spokeswoman Karen Brinkman says. NRA has several education and training programs designed to help youngsters or novices achieve a solid grounding in gun safety.
Each military service and installation may have slightly different rules related to storing firearms in on-base housing. Check with your installation's law enforcement office to ensure you have the best information.
Basic safety rules
Every person should know and understand these rules before handling any firearm:
1. Treat every gun as if it were loaded — even if you're certain it's empty.
2. Always point the gun in a safe direction, maintaining control of the muzzle. Do not point at anything you do not intend to shoot.
3. Keep your finger off the trigger and out of the trigger guard until you're ready to fire.
4. Always be certain of your target. Know what is around your target and beyond your target.