(MA) Young guns take up arms: Women, children seen as future of hunting


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Drizzt
October 20, 2005, 11:59 PM
Young guns take up arms: Women, children seen as future of hunting
By Rick Holland / Daily News Staff
Sunday, October 16, 2005

A coonskin cap, the must-have accessory for boys growing up in the mid-1950s, was emblematic of the television hero character who wore it: Davy Crockett.

Kids in those innocent times were drawn to Crockett's rugged but compassionate and defiantly outdoor persona, as played by Fess Parker.

Parker's Davy Crockett also was beloved for his infallibility in skirmishes with Indians and his uncanny skill with a rifle.

Fess Parker and his TV role were long ago relegated to the storage room. But the surge and swoon in popularity for the outdoorsman-as-hero does not mean kids have completely turned their back on the thrill of holding, loading and firing a rifle.

Over the past dozen years, for example, the Maspenock Rod & Gun Club in Milford has helped cultivate the interest of shooters from ages 11 to 18 as part of its Junior Rifle Marksmanship program.

"I would rather see kids in my program or one like it, than sitting in front of video games or television," said David Gregoire, a Maspenock member who leads the club's junior program. "In front of a video screen, kids aren't learning anything, but participating in this program they learn self-respect, accountability, responsibility and patience."

For Milford's Steven Dorsey, 12, it's all about the patches.

With weekly practice sessions at the club, Dorsey has the opportunity to earn progressively higher accuracy designations, from "pro-marksman" to "expert," with patches and gold sew-on bars to signify his advancement.

"I like (shooting) because I'm earning (higher) ranks," Dorsey said.

The feelings of achievement and accomplishment are among the most valuable parts of the youth program, according to Gregoire.

"The kids can prove to themselves they can do something really well, something their peers don't even think about," he said.

Youth programs such as Maspenock's have even changed the minds of some parents who acknowledge a preference for soccer balls over shotguns.

Lynn Isabelle, a Medway resident, has watched her son Brendan, 13, go from "expressing an interest" in shooting when he was 11, to his status as a two-year veteran of the youth program.

"I will first tell you that I'm not into guns," said Isabelle. Her stance on the matter was a topic for discussion when, as a college student, she met her husband, John, who had been an avid hunter and shooter as a teen.

"When we met, I encouraged him to shoot pictures instead of guns," Isabelle said.

But getting to know Michelle St. Gelais, who assists Gregoire with the youth program at Maspenock, helped Isabelle decide her son would be safe.

"I met Michelle and liked her very much, and I trusted her very much," said Isabelle. She stayed to watch a couple of the two-hour sessions after enrolling her son in the program, and felt comfortable based on the experience.

"The kids have a good time, and the sessions are very well supervised and controlled....There's no fooling around," she said.

Testimony such as Isabelle's represents light at the end of an otherwise bleak tunnel for hunting and shooting advocates such as Mark Tisa, assistant director for the state's Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

Call it a vestige of the Fess Parker syndrome, because nationwide over the past 20 years, the number of hunters has dropped by nearly 2 million, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency's most recent attempt to collect participation data on young hunters -- 6 to 15 years old -- in Massachusetts was not tabulated because the "sample size was too small to report data reliably."

Tisa, 49, said density of housing and development is one factor that has reduced the space and opportunity for hunting over the past two or three decades, but he said societal factors such as high divorce rates and single-parent homes are also to blame.

"We've done research, and it's shown that the greatest impediment to kids hunting is the absence of a mentor to teach them," said Tisa. "My mother and father didn't hunt, but my grandfather taught me."

Though he is aware of opposing opinions, Tisa said hunting and shooting should not be suffering participation declines over concerns about safety or the notion that learning about guns encourages violent behavior in kids or adults.

"If you look at any safety statistics, you have a greater chance of being killed going skiing than you do hunting or shooting," said Tisa. "And I don't know where there's any evidence of people learning how to become hunters and then taking guns and using them in acts of violence."

Other attitudes may also be affecting participation, even among adults who hunt.

"I find the interest in hunting is waning," said Franklin Police Lt. Stephan Semerjian. "But the camaraderie, being outdoors in the wilderness -- everything about hunting is fun. The worst part is knowing that you just took an animal's life. There's always a sadness about that...a deer isn't like a fish. You can't throw it back."

Young shooters can practice on a less sensitive target. One depicting "Barney," the popular purple dinosaur of public television fame, can be downloaded from the Junior Rifle Committee section of the Web site for the Hopkinton Sportsmen's Association.

Because of the physical and attitudinal challenges to getting children involved in shooting and hunting, advocacy groups such as the National Shooting Sports Foundation are beginning to spend money at the local level.

For example, the foundation provided a recent grant to launch the state's Young Adult Pheasant Hunt Program this summer, an initiative to "provide young hunters (ages 12 to 17) with a positive outdoor hunting experience..." according to the program guide. Yesterday was the last of six consecutive Saturdays designated for the young adult program statewide.

By state law, kids under 12 could not participate in the hunt, and those between the ages of 15 and 17 had to have a Firearms Identification Card and a valid hunting license. All participants had to complete the state's Hunter Education Program before signing up for the pheasant hunt.

Tisa said he hopes that not only will help the program attract a new generation of hunters, it also will inspire parents to take up the sport. He is also hoping to see a continued breakdown of attitudes that have kept girls and women on the sidelines when it comes to shooting. In the Maspenock youth program, Gregoire said boys outnumber girls by about 10 to 1.

"All I know is that generally when a girl comes through the program, they shoot better than the boys," said Gregoire. "At the 2000 (Summer) Olympics, you know who won the very first gold medal? It was a woman (Nancy Johnson) from the U.S. shooting an air rifle."

"One of my biggest goals is to get women and younger kids involved in fishing, hunting and shooting. I think we suffer greatly by not having more of them involved," said Tisa. To that end, Ellie Horowitz, MassWildlife's chief of information and education, runs a year-round series of workshops under a program called "Becoming an Outdoor Woman."

The program is open to women who are at least 18 and teaches them a variety of "skills traditionally passed from father to son," according to Tisa. In addition to hunting instruction, the program has offered courses on everything from kayaking and archery, to nature photography and recognizing edible plants.

http://www.metrowestdailynews.com/localRegional/view.bg?articleid=111832

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