By Don Gardner
Every year it seems there are fewer and fewer rites of passage for young people in our society. Rites of passage are mileposts marking the transition from childhood to adulthood. As a young person gains greater freedoms he or she also accepts increased responsibilities and accountability.
Today the driver’s license is our greatest rite of passage for teenagers. With the freedom of movement an automobile provides comes the responsibility and accountability for the lives of others you can profoundly affect by your actions while driving. For me, taking on responsibilities started with being able to consistently get up in the morning, get myself ready and to catch the bus to school. Doing daily chores to keep up the home and working alongside adults came next.
One of the greatest rites of passage for me was when my dad bought me my first rifle, a .22 rimfire. He taught me firearms safety and hunting ethics. That meant respecting the game, the land and property rights. When he had finished teaching me I was trusted with lethal force – which is pretty much the same thing as driving a car.
The South has a hunting tradition that is just as much a part of our culture as moss-draped live oak trees and sweet tea. We humans wanted the freedom from fear of being attacked and eaten by the top predators of deer – wolves and bears. We also wanted the crops we planted to be eaten by us and not the deer. When we humans removed the top predators from effectively keeping deer numbers in balance, we took on the responsibility for managing the deer population. Hunting is essential to maintaining healthy deer populations and preventing starvation of huge numbers of deer across the state.
So hunting plays a valuable and important role in maintaining both wildlife and agriculture in Georgia. Remember it is hunters and fishermen who pay the fees that support the conservation and habitat restoration programs that fight to bring back and keep our native game populations healthy.
But today more than half of the people who live in Georgia were not born in Georgia. And not every child, native Georgian or not, has parents who hunt and pass on the tradition. So there is a need for programs that teach youth and adults about gun and hunting safety. There are a number of good programs to introduce young people to the shooting sports but they are not uniformly distributed across the state or nation.
The National Rifle Association supports shooting programs led by the Boy Scouts, FFA, Jaycees, American Legion, JROTC, local gun clubs and others. In 40 states across the U.S. the 4-H SAFE Program – Shooting Awareness Fun and Education – engages 100,000 youth nationally, of which almost 5,000 are in Georgia. The NRA is a major supporter of the University of Georgia’s SAFE Program as well.
Each of these programs has their place and niche to fill. The shooting sports are another vehicle for character development in youth. We do not teach youth to hunt in 4-H. We teach them how to responsibly punch holes in paper or break clay discs. In the process, they have fun, learn discipline and take on responsibility as well as learn safe handling of firearms and archery equipment. 4-H SAFE can take a child as far as their talents and desire allow, including to the U.S. Olympic Teams.
The SAFE Program in Georgia 4-H is led by Mark Zeigler. He was the extension agent here in Bryan County before he was promoted to lead the SAFE Program statewide. Instructors he trained are still here in Bryan County teaching Richmond Hill area kids about BB guns and shotguns. Let’s just say there are expectations of SAFE Program leadership from Bryan County Extension agents.
Statewide the SAFE Program offers lesson for BB, .22 rimfire rifle, air pistol, air rifle, archery and shotgun. Here in Bryan County, we offer lessons for BB, shotgun and archery. Why not the others? SAFE is a bit of a “stone soup” project. The state and county pay for the agents, office and support staff to manage the program. The SAFE Program is entirely dependent on local volunteers to coach the various programs. In Richmond Hill, Pat and Debbie Patrick coach BB. In Pembroke, Becky and Sam Stewart coach BB and archery. Bob Jacobs has recently become a certified instructor for SAFE Programs and is co-teaching BB and starting-up archery in Richmond Hill. Walt Straub coaches shotgun in Pembroke and has coached children from across the county for years.
All the rest of the costs – ammunition, equipment, targets, travel costs, entry fees for competitions, trailer and storage fees, food and on and on – have to be raised locally. A teenager in the shotgun program will fire at least 850 shells at 850 clay targets in a season – more if they qualify for district, state and national competitions. This is where the annual grants from the National Rifle Association really help.
We add to that a registration fee of $100 per shooter in the shotgun program and we still have not covered all the costs. That means we need to do fundraising to support the program. We have been fortunate to enjoy good support from local businesses and gun clubs, which makes up the difference. If we want to start up a new shooting club, like .22 rimfire or air pistol, we would first need coaches willing to volunteer their time. Then there is the equipment. Good competition-grade rifles and pistols are not cheap. And we need a safe place to practice.
We want every child to have the opportunity to enjoy the shooting sports. Raising the price on registration will price some kids out of the market. Others would need sponsorship in order to participate, and some of these kids are the ones who might benefit most from the program. So if you or your company is looking for a way to help build character in local youth, consider sponsoring a child in the SAFE Program. BB sponsorship costs $135 per child. Archery costs $175 per child, and shotgun costs $280 per child.
It is always better if young people learn respect, responsibility and discipline before they get behind the wheel of a car, and the earlier they learn the better. Traditions only last as long as they are practiced. Help a child get outside and do something that builds character and does not involve a video screen.
Gardner is the extension agent for Bryan County and can be reached at email@example.com.