High school rifle programs foster maturity, teach discipline, responsibility
TribLIVE Sports Videos
Brendan Boyle was hanging out with friends, wearing his Woodland Hills High School rifle team sweatshirt, when a passer-by took note, stopped and shared a few thoughts.
It was shortly after the Sandy Hook school shooting in December, and Boyle, a senior and the team captain, cannot recall the exact words. But the gist of the man's unsolicited comments was “It's not safe. Guns shouldn't be in schools,” Boyle said. He added that the man “apologized” but emphasized that he “really wanted to voice his displeasure.”
Boyle recounted the episode after competing in the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League rifle championships last week in North Strabane. Inside a low-ceilinged, bare-bones shooting range, high school boys and girls lying prone on mats fired .22-caliber bullets at paper targets 50 feet away. It was a rigidly supervised and tightly controlled environment. Safety measures were stated and repeated. Tension and the smell of gunpowder hung in the air, a world unto itself.
Meanwhile, on the outside, in what might be considered the real world, the national conversation about gun control and gun violence, gun purchases and gun ownership and all other matters gun related continued to boil, unabated.
Those involved in the sporting aspect of the gun debate (the one that involves shooting paper) are not deaf to the chatter. They are acutely aware of a hot-button topic about which opinions are plentiful and freely stated, sometimes by passing strangers. They are expressed calmly or with great fervor, in black and white or shades of gray. Those involved are acutely aware, too, of their place in such a landscape.
“I grew up with it,” said Jon Hammond, coach of the NCAA top-ranked West Virginia University rifle team, who spent his childhood in Scotland and recalls the 1996 Dunblane massacre in which 16 schoolchildren and a teacher were killed. “For a little while maybe, I think it hurt the sport back home, the way it was viewed.
“But our sport lacks exposure, and so a lot of time people don't necessarily have the knowledge and understanding of what the sport is about, the benefits and the life skills it can teach.”
In other words, “frustration begins where knowledge ends,” said Woodland Hills coach Matt Rodriguez, echoing a popular refrain in the sport.
John Husk, the Trinity High School coach for 25 years and architect of the most successful WPIAL rifle program during that time, is well-armed for the discussion. Husk, who teaches classes in manufacturing and television production and operates a winery, was happy to touch on a number of subjects.
On the matter of security, Husk said guns and ammunition are stored in locked, “bank-quality” vaults, or in safes, and access is rigidly controlled. Safety? “No one's had a concussion; no one's broken a leg,” he said. Knowledge? “My kids have a big respect for firearms because they've been exposed to it.”
His fellow coaches — all certified instructors, nearly all of them lifelong devotees of the sport — gladly chimed in.
“People say they're anti-gun, but they're really anti-violence,” said Hempfield's Tom Miller, coach of the 2013 championship team. “A gun is no more than a tool.”
“It's a physically demanding, mentally demanding sport,” Mt. Lebanon coach Dave Williard said. “One thing about the sport: You can do it as long as you can walk.”
Participating in rifle “has made me more mature,” said Boyle. “It's not like, ‘I'm shooting a gun.' It's having the right mental game, and you can't do that if you're not mature.”
Boyle said he gave a calm, measured — some might say mature — response to the man who approached him, explaining the competitive buzz he gets from the sport, the stringent safety measures and the skill level involved, the team's classroom success, the camaraderie, the discipline and how each participant is “incredibly responsible,” he said.
Boyle, 17, also plays the mellophone, a brass instrument similar to a French horn, in the marching band and is interested in musical theater. He said he has been accepted by three colleges so far. He expresses no firm opinion on the gun issue, mainly because “there's no need to,” he said. “As long as these rifles are in a controlled environment, there's nothing to worry about.”
Talyn Boden, however, does have an opinion. A 16-year-old sophomore at Elizabeth Forward High School, she said, “.22s and hunting guns” are fine, “as long as you know how to control them and go to safety classes.” But she questions automatic weapons, or other guns “that are, like, huge and big,” she said. “You don't need them.”
Boden has been shooting for about a year despite an unusual malady, chronic hiccups. It's true. But she manages to control them when she shoots. She belongs to an outside shooting club and competes individually because her school does not have one of the 14 WPIAL rifle squads.
Boden's father, Gary, is a hunter, and so was his dad and grandfather. And she hunts, too. But it was mainly a friend who got her interested in target shooting.
On Thursday, Boden shot in the individual competition and vied in a swim meet that night. In the spring, she will compete in track.
Her mother, Shawna, teaches French in high school. Asked if anyone questioned her daughter's interest in shooting, Shawna Boden mentioned that a school official was worried about the rifle ending up in the building. (It did not.)
“It's unsettling that we have to even consider that,” Boden said. “I've been teaching 19 years, and I've never seen the protocols we have to go through in school (regarding security). You just don't know who to trust.”
Boden said she was “a little uncomfortable at first” with her daughter's gun involvement until coaches explained everything involved.
“It's an organized sport,” she said, “just like any other sporting activity.”
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Steelers’ Bryant returns from drug suspension, ‘won’t happen again’
- Audit shows some items cost more at Pittsburgh airport’s Airmall
- Fired aide files lawsuit against Attorney General Kane
- Numerous citations issued during IUP homecoming festivities
- Bus driver injured in crash in Luzerne
- LaBar: WWE should move Daniel Bryan to part-time
- Outdoors notebook: Commission seeks to grow deputy force
- Herald roundup: Fox Chapel golfers remain undefeated
- Smithfield Street northbound in Downtown Pittsburgh to be closed for 7 months
- Wolf: State needs ‘broad-based tax increase’ to avoid $2B deficit
- Rossi: Time to give Pirates owner Nutting his due