•Local instructors say education, not restrictions, is key
As debates over proposed gun control laws continue to be waged on the national, state and local levels, a lively discussion over gun and ammunition control legislation took place during a Judiciary Committee hearing of the Nebraska Legislature just last week.
Among the bills discussed was LB50, introduced by Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha. The bill would hold gun owners civilly liable for damages resulting from the unreasonable placement of a firearm where a minor or mentally handicapped individual could get it.
For many individuals, including many gun owners, this debate comes down to two very key elements - education and safety. No matter where you stand on the gun control issue, the fact remains that as long as the U.S. Constitution protects the right to bear arms by American citizens there will be guns. And many would argue that the problem is not with the guns themselves, but with the individuals who make the choice to use them improperly.
There are a number of organizations and private individuals dedicated to the goal of educating citizens, especially children, on gun safety. That education begins with an understanding of the dangers of firearms - and the understanding that they are not toys.
Louis Stithem has been teaching hunter education and safety, through Nebraska Game & Parks, to area kids since 1973. That was the year Nebraska enacted a law that anyone born after 1977 had to have certification from a hunter education class in order to hunt. Since then the law has been changed to include anyone between the ages of 12 and 29.
Stithem believes strongly enough in the importance of educating on gun safety that he has dedicated 40 years of his life to it. And he is not the only one who believes education is a big part of the solution.
Several people testified in opposition to LB50, which would impose civil liability on gun owners for the unreasonable placement of a firearm where a minor or mentally handicapped individual could get it. National Rifle Association lobbyist Ron Jensen said the language of the bill is too vague and could potentially criminalize lawful firearm possession.
Jeremy Cody, a member of the Nebraska Firearm Owner’s Association, said he would prefer introducing youth education programs to teach children to stay away from firearms.
“These programs have proven successful at teaching children to stay away from guns,” Cody said.
Sen. Ashford, who sponsored the bill, said that the gun store owners he spoke to in Omaha expressed support for the bill.
“We are asking that firearm owners be responsible,” Ashford said, adding that the bill called for common sense safety measures.
Stithem couldn’t agree more. The whole basis of the hunter education class, he says, is to teach people the safe, responsible way to handle a firearm - whether you plan to hunt or not.
“The number of hunting accidents and fatalities has drastically decreased since 1973, when this began,” says Stithem. “That was the number one aim when this came about.”
Stithem was recently granted permission by the Broken Bow Board of Education to teach the hunter education class at the school, his 40th year of doing so. Students must have 10 hours of classroom education and pass a written test to become certified. Stithem says that classroom time includes quite a bit of hands-on training.
No live ammunition is ever brought in to the class, and students of the class are not allowed to bring their own firearms. The firearms used for the educational purposes of the class are supplied by the instructor.
These hunter education courses, offered all across the U.S., are funded by federal dollars from what is commonly called the "Pittman-Robertson Act." Funds from an 11 percent excise tax on sporting arms and ammunition are appropriated to the Secretary of the Interior and apportioned to States on a formula basis for paying up to 75 percent of the cost approved projects.
Because of this funding, the classes are able to be offered at no charge to interested kids. The class is offered in the Spring, and students who complete the class and become certified are then invited to participate in the live shooting program sponsored by the One Box organization.
This is a six-week youth shooting program which is also offered at no cost. One Box supplies all of the shells and targets for the program, which generally adds up to $3,000 or more. Everyone involved with the program is certified as live fire instructors.
Stithem says that while everyone who takes the hunter education class does not always participate in the live shooting program, it is encouraged to do so. The analogy could be made that taking the class but not applying what you have learned would be similar to taking a drivers ed class, but never actually driving.
Youth who participate in the One Box shooting program are allowed to bring their own firearms, however youth who do not have a firearm can use one furnished by the instructors. This class is typically held in mid-March on Mondays.
Stithem says he will occasionally get a student who has no desire to hunt, but just wants to learn about gun safety. He says he has also had the student who is in the class simply because their best friend is taking it, so they did too.
“I generally ask my students how many have parents who hunt, and only about half say yes. But when I ask how many have at least one firearm in their home it runs about 90-95 percent who do,” says Stithem.
That is exactly why he encourages youth - whether hunters or not - to take the class.
“A firearm is a mechanical tool that people just need to know how to operate,” he explains.
During his class, Stithem says students learn how to handle all five actions of firearms. As a former math teacher, he says he also takes the opportunity to incorporate teaching science - such as kinetic energy - and math principles into the class.
Stithem is also currently serving as a member of the International Hunter Education Association-USA Advisory Committee. He and an instructor from Iowa represent a 10-state region in the central U.S. This committee has been tasked with finding what instructors across the country need to help them with their classes.
There are approximately 70,000 volunteer instructors across the country, and Stithem says one of the biggest issues he sees is the challenge of finding a facility to have the class. Every state requires hunter education certification in order to hunt there, as does Canada and Mexico. So the need for facilities to hold those classes is vital.
Stithem is a certified as a shotgun instructor with the NRA, and the NBEF Tree Stand Safety program. He has volunteered his time to assist NGPC at Skills Camps, Expo's/ODP's, various shooting events sponsored by NGPC and the 4H, in-service training, training and the certification process of volunteer hunter education instructors.
“He is always willing to step up to the plate and aid NGPC and the Hunter Education program in our efforts to train students, instructors and staff, in the concepts of safe, responsible and ethical hunting and participation in the shooting sports,” says Heather Weihe, Hunter Education NGPC.
At least one local group also believes strongly in the importance of firearm Education and safety. Nine years ago, the local Friends of NRA group hosted their first banquet in Broken Bow, with proceeds being used for youth shooting sports and educational opportunities.
Matthew Haumont became involved with Friends of NRA in the early 1990s, and remains an active member of the group. He says it is important that people realize Friends of NRA is 100 percent non-political; all money the group raises is used for grants and education.
Broken Bow’s banquet is one of 12 across the state of Nebraska. This local banquet, set this year for April 19 at the Broken Bow Municipal Building, also has the honor of being one of the top banquets in the nation. Of the more than 1,100 banquets across the U.S., Broken Bow has consistently remained in the top 20.
Aside from the fee to attend the banquet, money is also raised through silent and live auctions. Haumont says that when all is said and done, 69 cents of every dollar raised at the event goes toward supporting its programs, while the rest is used to pay for the banquet.
For 2013, Friends of NRA in Nebraska granted out more than $120,000 - all of that raised at banquets. However, Friends member Ray Hunt says more than $190,000 was applied for so the group was not able to award as much as they would have liked.
Grants given locally for this year include Litchfield High School youth shooting program, Oconto 4-H shooting program, and Pibel Bible Camp for a youth shooting program.
A national program Friends of NRA funds helps support is one both Haumont and Hunt strongly support. It’s called the Eddie Eagle GunSafe Program. The Eddie Eagle GunSafe Program teaches children in pre-K through third grade four important steps to take if they find a gun. These steps are presented by the program's mascot, Eddie Eagle, in an easy-to-remember format consisting of the following simple rules: If you see a gun:
Leave the Area.
Tell an Adult.
Begun in 1988, The Eddie Eagle GunSafe Program has reached more than 25 million children - in all 50 states.
According to the Friends of NRA website, the purpose of the Eddie Eagle Program isn't to teach whether guns are good or bad, but rather to promote the protection and safety of children. The program makes no value judgments about firearms, and no firearms are ever used in the program.
Like swimming pools, electrical outlets, matchbooks and household poison, they're treated simply as a fact of everyday life. With firearms found in about half of all American households, it's a stance that makes sense.
This is the type of educational programs Friends of NRA funds supports. Hunt explains that as a local chapter, this group has a vote on the state committee, giving them a more direct hand in how the money raised locally is spent. There is no membership requirement for Friends of NRA - the banquet is open to anyone and everyone.
Haumont says the tickets for the Friends of NRA banquet tend to sell quickly, so he encourages anyone interested in attending to get theirs as soon as possible. Tickets may be purchased on line at friendsofnra.org.
Along with attending the banquet, Hunt and Haumont also encourage groups to apply for the grants made available by these banquets.
“We want local people to apply for these grants, and we will be happy to help them out any way we can to do that,” said Hunt.
“Shooting sports actually teaches discipline and respect for life and safety,” adds Haumont, talking about the programs Friends of NRA dollars support. “It is one of the safest youth activities kids can be involved in.”
Though involved in slightly different areas, the one thing all three of these men have in common is the desire to educate both youth and adults on firearm safety. All three are very vocal about their shared opinion - that the elimination of guns drastically threatens our very way of life, and is not the solution to the problem. Education, they say, is.