Teaching Children To Shoot – 1957
Not that long ago shooting a rifle or a pistol was a right of passage for American children.
Here is a 16 page 1957 pamphlet put out by the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers Institute to encourage shooting for boys and girls. Its the sort of thing that today would probably be considered politically incorrect and start a huge protest if it were given out to schoolchildren. Some might call the pamphlet propaganda, but in the 1950s shooting and hunting as a recreational activity was one of the most popular leisure pastimes in the United States.
Shooting as a sport was considered to be a wholesome, fun activity that the family could do together. The popularity of sport fishing and wild game hunting in the United States soared to new heights in 1957 when a record total of 34,195,183 licenses were sold to devotees of those outdoor sports.
Today recreational shooting and especially hunting have been on a steady decline with 33 states issuing fewer hunting licenses in the past 20 years according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In an NBC interview Mark Damian Duda, executive director of Responsive Management, a Virginia-based natural resources research group said, “Fifty years ago, a lot of kids would hunt and fish and be outside, now it’s easier to sit in your playroom and play video games.”
Today the idea of giving a child a gun and teaching them how to use and respect a gun is an anathema to many people. When the word “shooting” is mentioned in the news it is usually preceded by the word “mass”.
What has changed? While it has been said that it is easier than ever to obtain a firearm, that is only part of the equation. In the past law abiding citizens bought guns which were widely available with few restrictions. Per capita murder rates and gun violence was relatively low.
Now there is the proliferation of both illegal and legal firearms contributing to widespread violence. But more than anything it’s the people that have changed. The person is the weapon, the gun sometimes the tool. Other times it’s a knife, or a bomb or a truck mowing down pedestrians.
Attitudes towards human life have been altered by mass and social media through desensitization. An indifference towards humanity is now accepted by a growing group of people who have and will continue to lash out at society in horrendous ways.
People who are unhinged or who have causes carry out heinous acts that were unthinkable years ago. Terrorism was not a concern in the 1950s and incidents of mass shootings were extremely rare. Throughout history there has always been gun violence, but nowhere near the levels seen today. In the 1950s you didn’t have kids bringing guns to school to shoot everyone.
If you’re thinking that in the past children learning to shoot was popular only in hunting states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Texas and Ohio you’d be wrong.
Public schools across the entire country, even In New York City, had rifle, pistol and shooting clubs. Up until 1969 most New York City High Schools had a shooting club; students competed in shooting competitions and the federal government paid for rifles and ammunition. The New York City schools quietly phased out their shooting programs during the 1970s. There are still a few places in the United States that have rifle teams in schools, mostly as part of the JROTC.
In 2013 Daniel Krieger wrote an excellent article for Narratively that later appeared in Salon, on guns and people who used the only gun range remaining in New York City. Krieger talked with Barry; a sixty-six-year-old retired consumer research consultant who is a gun instructor.
When Barry was growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s and ’60s, things were different. He joined the Brooklyn Boy Scout Marksmanship Program, run at an armory in the borough. Four other men who were there that day had been part of the same group. “It was one of the formative experiences of our lives,” said Barry, who spoke in a calm, deliberate manner throughout our chat. “What you learn about responsibility and character stays with you for the rest of your life.”
In an era when mass shootings were unheard of, most schools had a rifle team; Barry was a member of one at Stuyvesant High School and then at Brooklyn College. “You could put your rifle in the case and take a subway or bus and nobody seemed to notice or care,” he said. In those days, according to one old timer, there may have been as many as thirty gun retailers around the city, with the fanciest ones on Fifth Avenue. (One remnant of that is the Beretta New York Gallery on Madison Avenue, where you can get a high-end handgun, shotgun or rifle.)
In Barry’s view, the public’s attitude toward guns started to shift after the assassinations in the 1960s (the Sandy Hook, Aurora and Virginia Tech of that decade).
In a 1999 New York Times article Keith Dowling, a sophomore marksman on the rifle team at Yorktown High School who hoped to continue competitive shooting in college said ”I am a bit disappointed that some people associate school violence with a legitimate team sport, ‘It’s a great sport, and just like any other, it teaches you sportsmanship, responsibility, and cooperation.”
Shooting remains an Olympic sport, but training those participants to compete is not going to be happening in many areas of the United States where gun free school zones have eliminated teams and competitions.
With the rash of school shootings, understandably many parents have come to the conclusion that guns and schools should have nothing to do with one another.
It’s a different world than it was in the 1960s. You go anywhere; a mall, a concert, a movie, your job, or just in the street, and you are thinking of an escape plan. As a nation we’ve moved further away from the idea that the word “shooting” constitutes good, clean family fun.
One thing is for sure, America is divided more than ever. Whatever happens with gun legislation will continue to be one of the flashpoints of our fraying democracy.