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Shooting teams thrive as students protest gun laws

March 29, 2018 GMT

The next time area high school students stage a walkout or march to ban guns, don’t expect Ashley Courneya to stand with them.

The Mayo High School senior shoots as part of the Minnesota State High School Clay Trap League. And while she certainly doesn’t support the full message of the NRA, she’s also not willing to stand behind what she considers misinformation when it comes to firearms.

Courneya is one of a growing number of students across Minnesota and the nation who participate in shooting sports. And it’s all done in the name of competition, school pride and safety.

“What started in our own backyard has become one of the fastest growing sports in America,” said John Nelson.

National league

Nelson is vice president of the USA High School Clay Target League. He also runs the league in Minnesota, the state where high school league trap and skeet shooting began in 2001.

This year, the Minnesota State High School Clay Targets League added 15 to 20 teams, Nelson said, representing more than 500 student athletes who shoot clay targets in several disciplines during both fall and spring seasons. For the 2016-17 school year, the league’s national totals were about 16,500, Nelson said. This year, the league added roughly 3,000 student athletes to its rolls, in addition to replacing the 6,000 competitors who graduated as seniors.

“We’ve had virtually no pushback whatsoever,” Nelson said, referring to recent anti-gun rallies in the wake of a shooting in Parkland, Fla., that claimed the lives of 17 students at a school there. “We had one school in Indiana that was considering joining the league and pulled out.”

A big part of the league’s popularity is its safety record. Since forming in 2001, Nelson said the league has had roughly 30 million trigger pulls and no injuries from firearms despite more than 42,000 kids participating over the 17-year history of the league.

“We’re the only safety-certified program in the schools,” he said.

Tim Gerber, who serves as the head coach for Mayo, John Marshall, Century and the Rochester homeschool teams, said students must either complete the Department of Natural Resources’ hunter firearm safety course or go through the league’s Student Athlete Firearm Education – SAFE – certification. That includes an online study course and an in-person range safety course. Then there are several coaches along with range safety officers present at ever practice and competition.

No. 1 goal

Monday night, new team members went through orientation and safety training at the Southeast Minnesota Sportsman’s Club shooting range before taking their turns trying to knock orange disks from the sky.

“The number one goal is safety,” Gerber said.

Doug Courneya, Ashley’s father and one of the coaches, said as along as a student shows he or she can be safe, how well they score doesn’t matter. “One thing about the league, we take anyone,” he said. “As long as they demonstrate they can be attentive and safe, there’s no prerequisite as far as shooting ability. We don’t turn kids away.”

In fact, Nelson said, that’s another one of the appeals of the league. “They can try something without being the tallest, the fastest, the strongest,” he said, adding that shooting ranges are even handicapped accessible for students with mobility issues who can still properly use a gun. “About 35 percent of these kids don’t do any other actvity at school.”

That’s another reason Ashley loves the sport. “I think there’s a lot of kids who never thought they’d be in a high school sport, but they’re excelling at trap,” she said, “even though, maybe like me, they can’t catch a ball to save their life or run.”

Her lack of skill at other sports aside, Ashley has placed at state and lettered three times since she joined as a sophomore.

So, when her classmates start talking about firearms in terms she believes are false, Ashley, an avid hunter who loves walking with her shotgun and her dog looking for pheasants, said, she tries to educate them.

“I have friends, a lot of them won’t listen to any of my opinions on guns,” she said. “I’d encourage them to go through a safety class.”

‘I don’t kill people’

When students walked out of school last month or gathered to march last weekend, she said she did not and would not stand with them.

“I think a lot of the stuff that’s going around says guns are just meant for killing people,” she said. In fact, she heard a teacher at the school’s SACC program say just that. That kind of misinformation, she said, gets tied into the walkouts and marches.

Instead, she said, she hopes more students come out to the range and learn about gun safety, something that has been ingrained in her so that it’s second nature, and learn about the fun that comes with the competition and making new friends.

“I don’t kill people, I kill orange targets.”