TIPTON — Had Ralphie Parker joined a junior rifle club in “A Christmas Story,” no adult would have denied him a BB gun by insisting “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!”
That’s because youngsters who enter such programs learn that safety comes first when handling any firearm, even those designed for inexperienced marksmen.
“They have a respect for guns and what kind of damage they can do,” said Dan Hawk, coach of the Tussey Mountain Junior Rifle Club. “(Education) takes the mystery out of guns.”
Various safety precautions, from eyewear to observant parents, were in place at the club’s annual state tournament held Saturday at the Northern Blair County Recreation Center in Tipton.
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The event was moved after State College Area school board members refused to grant space at Mount Nittany Middle School, citing the district’s no-weapons policy.
The board’s decision in January disappointed leaders of the Tussey Mountain club, who wanted to hold it in the club’s hometown. It also sent a message to local shooting aficionados who think the sport deserves respect and support from the public.
Districts across the state have PIAA rifle clubs and host rifle events, they said. Penns Valley Area High School, for example, opened its doors for the state tournament last year.
“I think (the board) missed a golden opportunity,” said Gib Moyer, head coach of the Penn State Rifle Club. “Most of them didn’t understand what this is all about.”
Although the move presented logistical hurdles for organizers, it didn’t deter five rifle clubs — with 88 members ranging from 8 to 15 years old — from making the trip.
Each club is broken down into several five-person teams, with individuals shooting his or her basic Daisy BB gun under the guidance of a parent or coach.
“Shooting kind of gives you satisfaction that you can hit a good shot and have self-control,” said Colin Lucas, a 12-year-old member of the Penns Valley Shooting Team. “It’s not like in the movies; you have to respect the gun.”
The goal is to hit the quarter-inch bulls-eye of 10 paper targets from four different positions: standing, kneeling, sitting and laying down.
Coupled with a true-and-false test on gun safety, the competition offers a maximum of 500 points. Trophies and medals are awarded to the highest scorers.
The top three teams are invited to represent Pennsylvania at the international tournament in Bowling Green, Ky., in July.
The sport is unique because men and women of all athletic abilities compete on an equal playing field. With practice and persistence, a young shooter can advance through the ranks to become a seasoned rifleman on a collegiate- or Olympic-level team.
Jennifer Hawk, a former member of the Tussey Mountain club, now travels the country with the Penn State Rifle Club. Rob Harbison, another former member, will compete in the Olympic Games in Beijing in August.
“There’s a misconception that this isn’t really a sport, but I disagree vehemently,” Moyer said. “What most people don’t know is that this teaches kids how to set and maintain goals, focus, concentrate and gives them skills they can use throughout their life.”