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on May 20 at 08:22 AM
Pop. Pop. Pop. At the Minnesota high school trap-shooting championship, more than 8,000 students from some 300 schools gathered in June to blast flying orange discs out of the sky. Over nine days, the sound of bullets firing—hour after hour after hour—-becomes ambient noise, like a supermarket soundtrack. Pop. Pop. Pop.
RVs filled the parking lot. Sponsor tents (the U.S. Army, Friends of NRA, a guy selling Donald Trump T-shirts) lined the Alexandria Shooting Park, a grassy stretch in a lake-dotted region around two hours northwest of Minneapolis. Kids in their team uniforms formed a rainbow of red, orange, green, maroon, all shades of blue. Their shirts bore the names of their scholastic trap-shooting squads and the local outfits that support them. For Crosslake Community School, the list includes a local bank, an insurance broker, the American Legion and Grandpa’s General Store.The Minnesota State High School Clay Target League championship bills itself as the largest shooting sports event in the world. With the bustling crowds and flood of corporate interest, it could be mistaken for, say, a scene on the NASCAR circuit, except that the stars are teenage boys and girls. And they’re armed. That’s the entire point, of course, in a shooting competition, but there are moments when the world beyond scorecards and ear protection edges into view. Bernie Bogenreif, coach for the Roseville Area High School trap team, detects one such instance as competitors from another school line up for a team photo: a couple of dozen kids arranged, shoulder to shoulder, guns in hand.
“Bet that one isn’t going in the yearbook,” -Bogenreif quips.
Then again, it might. In much of the country, the words guns and schools do tend to go together more often in horrific headlines than under a senior portrait, wedged between Class Treasurer and Spring Track. But more and more yearbooks are marking competitive shooting as a part of high school life. Even as mass shootings have inspired protests and walkouts in many schools, a growing number—-sometimes the same schools—are sanctioning shooting squads as an extracurricular activity. In 2015, for example, 9,245 students, in 317 schools across three states, participated in the USA High School Clay Target League. Since then, participation has spiked 137%: in 2018, 21,917 students, from 804 teams in 20 states—-including New York and California, as well as Texas—competed.
The uptick reflects at least two complex and relentlessly challenging realities—guns in America and adolescence. On one level, high school shooting teams weave themselves into the national debate over firearms. The NRA has funded these programs. From 2014 to 2016, the latest three years for which the NRA Foundation’s tax returns are publicly available, the organization provided more than $4 million in cash and equipment grants to schools and organizations that support scholastic sports shooting. The support dovetails with the group’s original emphasis on gun safety and training. But it also aligns with the NRA’s transformation into a political power-house that frames firearm ownership with a defiant cultural conservatism. There’s a reason Barry Thompson, a service engineer for medical equipment who has a lifetime NRA membership, helps coach the East Ridge High School team. “I’m upfront with the parents,” says Thompson, 59. “I am out here with an ulterior motive. These kids will be voting.”Gun critics see the issue the same way. “Anything the NRA is for I’d say might not be beneficial for society,” says Linda Rosenthal, a Democratic state assembly member from New York City. “It’s beneficial for NRA influence and the propagation of gun use.” Rosenthal has proposed legislation banning public-school teams in her state, which are becoming more popular: in 2018 alone, participation in the New York State High School Clay Target League tripled, to 1,149 students and 59 schools. The lawmaker notes that Nikolas Cruz, charged with killing 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., was a member of his high school rifle team.“If parents are interested in their children learning about marksmanship, they have every right to send their kids to such a program,” says Rosenthal. “However, schools are places of learning. They are not places to learn how to become tomorrow’s mass shooter.”
No scientific research, however, shows that joining a shooting team makes you more likely to do harm with a gun. And there is no shortage of anecdotal evidence, at least among shooting teams, that describes such structured activities as an antidote to the afflictions often attributed to students who have carried out school massacres, including alienation and social isolation.
Sydney Gilbertson joined Waconia High School’s trap team when she was just 13. Her older brother was a shooter, but she was the only girl on the squad. “It took me out of my bubble,” says Gilbertson, 19, now a freshman at the University of Minnesota. “I owe my confidence to trap. It’s the best thing I did in high school. If this were taken away from kids … I don’t know what I would have done.” Her eyes nearly fill with tears. “I’m attached to it.”
For about a third of USA High School Clay Target League participants, trap shooting is their sole sport. “Whether you’re out in the country or close to the city, there is just a whole group of kids that need something to be part of,” says John Hanselman, the head coach at Spring Lake Park High School in Minnesota.
It’s an individual sport, like wrestling, that also offers the bonding and interdependence of a team. There are no cheerleaders, though, and the gear—-protective glasses, earmuffs, baggy vests with huge pockets—keeps the emphasis resolutely on performance. Hand-eye coordination and focus matter more than physical conditioning. Stars can emerge from anywhere.“You can take the biggest jock in high school—he can go out for high school trap and he can do good,” says LeRoy Van Brunt, committee chairman of the South Metro chapter of the Friends of NRA in Minnesota. “But you can take—and this isn’t politically -correct—the biggest computer nerd in school, or any of the girls, and they can beat that guy. And they do.”
In trap shooting, a machine known as the trap launches a clay target, or “pigeon,” into the air. Each competitor takes a hundred shots at the pigeons. Logan Gile of tiny Lakeview High School had torn his ACL, which ended his football career. He’d also torn his meniscus, which kept him off the basketball court. But the senior still found athletic perfection. At the state championship he hit all 100 of his targets, setting off a tearful celebration with his parents.
Meanwhile, Taylor Laumann, a senior at Watertown–Mayer High School who uses a wheelchair because of a spina bifida condition, fires away alongside her teammates. Thanks to trap, Laumann has earned a varsity letter. “When you have a child with special needs, some of those things you don’t really think are going to happen,” says Susanne Derner, Laumann’s mother. “She’s like the other kids, doing sports in school.”Minnesota is a hunting state; more than a third of adults own a firearm, and in rural areas, school attendance might dip significantly during the first days of deer season. But if not for the persistence of a former Minnesota adman, thousands of students would not have gotten involved in shooting for school teams. Jim Sable, now 80, retired in 2000 after selling his advertising agency. So he started spending more time at his local gun club. He knew the club was graying when someone asked him to unload targets from a semitruck, because he was one of the younger members.

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