Of the 10 cardinal rules of firearm safety, there are three that are stressed the most to students in the Southern Tier Youth Scholastic Trap League, said Al Ciesla.
Treat every gun as if it were loaded, always make sure the muzzle is pointed in a safe direction, and always identify your target and what lies beyond it.
“On a firearm, there’s no such thing as a control-alt-delete button,” said Ciesla, an adviser for the Franklinville Central School trap shooting team, which participates in the league. “Once you basically pull that trigger, you’re responsible for wherever that projectile goes.”
Local youth program leaders and school administrators argue shooting sports teach kids how to safely and responsibly handle firearms, which is why they say a new piece of legislation in Albany banning trap shooting, riflery and all shooting sport programs at schools throughout the state would be more detrimental than beneficial.
The bill, A10428, was presented to the New York State Assembly’s Education Committee April 20 and “prohibits marksmanship and/or shooting programs in public schools.” Presented by Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, D-Manhattan, the bill currently does not have a co-sponsor in the state Senate.
The Gun-Free School Zones Act passed by Congress in 1990 prohibits the possession of firearms on school grounds, but leaves exemptions for students possessing firearms as part of an approved school program.
However, the memo of Rosenthal’s bill states research shows that an increase in guns leads to an increase in gun injuries and deaths, and “to create a true gun-free school zone we cannot allow students to possess and discharge firearms on school property.”
The memo also notes that the alleged shooter who killed 17 people at a Parkland, Fla., high school Feb. 14 was a former member of the school’s marksmanship team.
“In today’s day and age, unfortunately what we hear is, ‘Oh, you’re training kids how to use weapons,’” said Ciesla, who is also a retired New York State Police trooper. “ ... We’re educating them in safe and proper use of firearms.”
Twenty-four schools and approximately 800 to 900 students participate in the Southern Tier Youth Scholastic Trap League, a club league whose season runs from about late February to mid-April, according to Ciesla. Students come from Cattaraugus, Allegany, Chautauqua and southern Erie counties, as well as northern Pennsylvania.
One of the participating schools is Ellicottville Central School, which has about 12 to 18 students participate a year on a team combined with West Valley Central School.
Ellicottville Central School District Superintendent Bob Miller said rifles and ammunitions are not housed on school property, but are instead locked away at local conservation clubs that host league practices and competitions.
“The kids don’t have access to them until an adult puts it in their hands,” Miller added. “ … It’s not like these things are just lying around and kids have access to them. They’re under lock and key.”
Miller is opposed to the bill, which he feels is demonstrative of a disconnect between downstate New York and the more rural upstate. He said shooting sports are a fabric of rural communities and that many students participate in shooting sports with their families outside of school. He himself grew up in a family where opening day of deer season was “like a holiday.”
“Upstate New York is very different from Manhattan,” Miller said.
Ciesla added, “as soon as you cross the Hudson and get into upstate New York, it’s a whole other world.”
The bill also extends to archery clubs, which 34,000 students in 320 schools across the state participate in.
Hinsdale Central School has had much success with its archery program over the last several years as part of the New York National Archery in the Schools program.
The middle school division won state championships this past March, and the elementary school division won in 2015-16. Last year, then-sophomore Jordan Sands captured her third consecutive state scholastic archery title and was among four Hinsdale students to compete in the U.S. national tournament in Louisville.
Hinsdale Central School District Superintendent Larry Ljungberg said upward of 70 students participate across the elementary, middle school and high school divisions. The district’s total enrollment is only roughly 400 students.
“I feel as educators we are supposed to match kids with opportunities, so why in goodness’ sake are we taking away an opportunity?” Ljungberg said.
Unlike the trap shooting programs, archery programs often practice and keep equipment on school grounds. Administrators said bow and arrows are heavily secured and locked down, and practice is done with care.
“We own a lot of land behind the school. So we’re shooting in a safe direction,” said Miller, whose district has an archery program for fourth- and fifth-grade students, in which about 90 students participate.
Another point of contention in the bill’s memo is that some schools operate shooting sports programs through grants from the National Rifle Association, which has been heavily criticized in light of the Parkland shooting.
A review of the NRA’s tax records by the Associated Press showed the NRA gave nearly $2.2 million in cash or equipment to schools across 30 states in 2016. From 2010 through 2016, about $17,000 of NRA money went to programs in New York state schools.
According to the NRA Foundation’s 2016 annual report, local school districts that received grant funding were the Franklinville, Ellicottville and Cattaraugus-Little Valley central school districts.
Ciesla argued many students wouldn't be able to participate in shooting sports without the NRA grants, which he said local schools have used to pay for rifles and ammunition, as well as the safes that store them.
“For a kid to shoot a round of trap is about $10. A lot of families, if it weren’t for the support of the schools and (NRA grants), wouldn’t even be participating in the shooting sports because it’s just too costly,” he said.
According to the state Assembly website, the Education Committee has yet to vote on the bill. Local administrators said they’ll be watching the legislation’s progress closely.
“Taking (programs) away, then the kids wouldn’t be exposed to these safety measures,” argued Ljungberg. “To me that’s actually doing a disservice because then those kids could actually hurt themselves or others.”
(Contact reporter Tom Dinki at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @tomdinki)