Aiming at safety

Sixth-graders learn about firearm safety and ethical hunting

Posted: Sunday, October 24, 2004

Sixth-graders Sheron Shramm and Raymond Webster, each carrying rifles, had to pass under a log Thursday in a simulation at the Juneau Gun Club.

Hunting safety instructor Linda Coate asked them to talk about how they'd do it safely.

"You have to give one of them a gun," Sheron ventured, realizing that one hunter would have to hold both firearms while the other crawled under the log.

"Should you ask them a question before you give them a gun?" Coate asked, prompting the students to remember to ask to see that the rifle was unloaded before passing it.

"You have to get those firearms safely to your partner under the log," Coate said. "Watch for the direction of your muzzle all the time."

If sixth-graders at Floyd Dryden Middle School remember anything from their two-day course in firearm safety last week, it's to treat every weapon as if it were loaded and not point it at anyone.

"If you never hunt again, if you never pick up a firearm in your life, I want you to remember the principles of safety, which apply to all sorts of things," hunter Stu Robards, wearing a bright orange shirt, told Paula Janowiec's students Thursday.

Instructors in several of the sessions Wednesday and Thursday hammered home that point. Students also learned about wildlife, ethical hunting, dressing big game, keeping warm in the outdoors, orienteering, and other aspects of firearm safety.

Students who successfully pass a written test and a shooting test with a .22-caliber rifle and live ammunition will receive a state basic hunter education certificate, good in all 50 states.

Eight students at a time sat behind a table at the firing range at the gun club off Montana Creek Road. Each student had an adult coach, who gave out one bullet at a time and showed the children how to load the rifle. Everyone wore safety glasses and earplugs. Some students used gun rests.

William Hayes, a full-time staff sergeant with the National Guard, previously showed the children how to know which of their eyes is dominant. That's the eye that will look through the sight.

The students overlapped their hands, palms outward in front of their face, sighted on an object and drew their hands close to their face. Whichever eye they brought their hands toward, to see through the space above their interlocked thumbs, was their dominant eye.

With the rifles laid down on the table and the students' hands in their lap, instructor John Leque explained that anyone can call a cease-fire and what it means to say a firing range is cold or hot. When people are shooting, the range is hot and no one was in front of the table.

Leque told the children to slide forward and put both arms on the table, for the greatest stability in their position. Soon the air was filled with popping sounds.

"That's a success story," said Ken Coate, one of the organizers, pointing to a seated girl, "because prior to 10 minutes ago she never made a shot in her life."

About 2,000 Alaskans earn the certificate each year, said Jerry Soukup, who coordinates the hunter information and training program for the state Department of Fish and Game.

Hunters 15 or younger must have a certificate to hunt in the Mendenhall Wetlands or be accompanied by an adult. Hunters born in 1986 or later must have a certificate to hunt in the Anchorage and Fairbanks areas or be with an adult who has the certificate.

Coate learned to hunt from his father, who learned from his father, and so on.

"Outdoor skills were a tradition passed from one generation to another," he said.

But in today's society, there are fewer extended families living together, and there's a role for formal courses.

"I wouldn't let my kid hunt without it," said Carol Shurson, whose 17-year-old son, Carl Lundquist, took the course years ago, before the Dryden program. Now Lundquist doesn't want to hunt with people who haven't taken it, she said.

It's unusual for a school to offer the course to so many students at once, Soukup said. A few other Alaska schools offer hunter education as an elective. Residents also can take a course through about 200 volunteer instructors.

But if Fish and Game wants to reach youths in rural Alaska, the best way is through the schools, and the Dryden program could be a model for that, Soukup said.

The Dryden event, now in its fourth year, is put on by the University of Alaska 4H program, Fish and Game, Territorial Sportsmen, Capital City Fire & Rescue and other volunteers, Principal Tom Milliron said.

The student fees, totaling $2,000, were paid by Camp 2 of the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Alaska Native Sisterhood, Coate said.

Parents of three children, out of about 200, opted out of the program for philosophical reasons, Milliron said.

Of the 22 students in Janowiec's classroom Wednesday, four said they have hunted and about half said they'd like to.

Student Joel Brownlow plans to become a hunter, although probably not of big game because, he said, he can hardly clean a fish without getting squeamish. He's especially interested in bowhunting.

"A bowhunter is more appreciative because it's a lot harder," he said.

Brownlow hit the 4-inch-diameter black area of the target in five of his shots, passing the shooting test Thursday. It was his first time shooting a rifle.

"I don't think I did too great," he said. "I got them spread out throughout the black."

Student Tyler Campbell already owns a .30-caliber rifle. He's been shooting for several years, and he hunts deer in Hoonah with his dad and his dad's friends.

"I just enjoy the feeling of after you shoot the bullet and hit the target. I like that feeling," Campbell said. "I really like being out in the wilderness."

Whether students ever hunt or not, they need to know firearm safety, said Keith Carlson, a hunter who helped teach a class on handling firearms.

"I think the real value in this course is to the kids who aren't going to hunt," he said. "It lets them safely handle firearms and know how to react when one comes out in an unsupervised situation."

Steve Hall, a sergeant with the Alaska State Troopers Bureau of Wildlife Protection, talked to students about hunting ethics and regulations.

"It's your responsibility to do everything you could to take an animal you wounded," Hall said.

He pointed out that a legal act, such as taking a long shot, may still be unethical because it's more likely to wound an animal that can't be tracked and killed.

"Improper behavior, whether it's illegal or not, raises concerns and casts a poor light on hunters in general and increases the negative opinions about hunters, and we don't want to do that," he told the children and showed a slide of a road sign torn up by bullets.

Hunter Ed Buyarski told Janowiec's students Wednesday about wanton waste and what it takes in skill and tools to dress a big-game animal in the field. He showed a video of hunters butchering a moose in the field.

"Some of it is pretty explicit, so there is blood and guts," he warned the kids. "If you don't want to see it, put your head down."

Some students said "euuuuw" at times, or looked away or covered their mouth. But mostly they watched, interested.

"You won't see him (the hunter) actually cut the head off," Buyarski said, and the students expressed disappointment.

On Thursday, hunters Keith Carlson and Will Sohocki reviewed firearm safety, showing Janowiec's students how to know if they have the right ammunition for their firearm, and how to safely hand a firearm to another person after seeing for themselves that it's unloaded.

"Right ammunition for the right weapon always," Sohocki said as he walked among the students, leaning over and pointing out the caliber markings on a firearm and bullet.

"Listen up people," he told students as he showed how to pass a firearm to another person. "Muzzle direction, muzzle safety at all times. If you point a muzzle at anyone, you will fail the course and will not continue."

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