Alexis Buxton is 18. She lives in Scott City, Kansas. It’s a small town — like less than 4,000 people small. And like many kids there, she grew up around guns.
“My mom has a concealed carry gun, my dad has a gun, my sister and her husband are both avid hunters,” Buxton said.
So she was excited when she reached the point freshman year when she could take a course on hunter education where she’d learn how to use guns safely, and for class credit.
A relic of the past or a solution for the future?
In Kansas, teaching hunter education in school has long been funded by the state’s Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. It even has its own promotional video. In the video, an adult instructor stands in front of a class of gangly teens and walks them through the basics of gun safety, while a narrator explains the program’s virtues.
“If I walk up to Alex and hand him a firearm, what’s the first thing he should do?” the instructor asks the students in the video. “Point the muzzle in a safe direction, right?”
The damage guns can do to humans — and how to prevent it — has been on a lot of people’s minds in the wake of high profile mass shootings. And in places still reeling from school shootings, hunter education brings up serious concerns. Matthew Harris is a graduate of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. After the shooting in Parkland, he helped start March for Our Lives Tallahassee at Florida State University. He feels skeptical about hunter ed.
“Gun training is not unimportant,” he said. “But I think the best way to eliminate school shootings is to not have guns in schools. I’ve never been the biggest fan of hunting in the first place, but obviously since my high school was shot up, it soured me on hunting even more.”
Harris and others in the March for our Lives movement have called for tighter gun regulations as a way to prevent future school shootings.
But there are parts of the country where learning to shoot can seem as common as riding a bike. And there, some students feel it’s more important than ever to teach kids how to respect guns — through firearms safety training.
"You’ve got everyone familiar with guns around here, and we don’t shoot each other in schools with them."
In Worth County, Iowa, Dan Block teaches courses to middle and high schoolers so they know how to safety handle and shoot guns. In his beginners’ course, students learn about the components of a gun by shooting clay pigeons, identifying the contents of a rifle cartridge and using muzzle-loading rifles.
Most states require people to take a hunter education course in order to obtain a hunting license. Iowa’s requirement is for people born after 1972. Block teaches the course year round, mostly to kids.
“I teach the kids about muzzle-loading rifles,” Block said. “And that's a really good background on why and how a gun works. And then in the second shooting program, I teach the kids how to reload rifles, and then we shoot AR-15s.”
That’s right — AR-15s. The same kind of gun used in several recent mass shootings, including Parkland last year. Block doesn’t see the issue with teaching kids how to use these guns.
“You’ve got everyone familiar with guns around here, and we don’t shoot each other in schools with them,” he said.
Matthew Harris from Parkland thinks that assumption is flawed. “It’s very naïve and very dangerous,” he said. “People can know everything there is to know about guns and still go out and commit a school shooting. Students are emotional. They are teenagers. They could decide to do something really bad.”
Alexis Buxton says she does worry about school shootings. And her school offers drills for active shooters in addition to hunter education. The way she sees it, both matter. But if she had to pick just one?
“It’s not taken lightly when there is a big school shooting [like Parkland],” Alexis said. But, she added, “I think a lot of people think that it's more important that we get kids like out shooting and out respecting guns before something like that happens in our own community.”
So far in 2019, there have been more than 40 people killed or injured in gun-related incidents at K through 12 schools around the country.