It sounds impossible: Pick up a rifle, aim it at a target 33 feet away, and try to hit a bullseye the size of a period on a 12-point Times New Roman font.
Jaden Thompson, 17, can do it. The Normal West student is among the best young shooters in the country. To get there, Jaden has cut back on sugar and caffeine to stabilize her shot. She works out to build up her cardio and core strength. She’s spent hours and hours practicing at the range.
“It’s just you when you’re on the gun. It’s no one else. It’s about very extreme focus, which I really enjoy,” said Jaden, who lives in Bloomington.
High schoolers across the country—including in Bloomington-Normal—have rallied for more gun control since the Feb. 14 shooting in Parkland, Florida. States like Florida have responded with tighter gun restrictions, and Illinois is considering the same.
While her peers at Normal West and other schools have planned walkouts and made protest signs, Thompson has been at the range practicing. She’s getting ready for the USA Shooting Rifle/Pistol National Championships in Fort Benning, Georgia, in June.
Jaden agrees that there are dangerous people who shouldn’t be allowed to have a gun. But she said policymakers should focus more on those troubled individuals, not on the guns themselves, as well as promoting overall gun safety like what she’s learned.
“It’s not the gun that pulls the trigger. You can’t really blame any of these things on the guns,” she said.
Jaden started shooting just before eighth grade, around age 13. That’s typical for kids from gun families like Jaden, whose relatives are avid hunters. The average age at which those who grew up with guns in the house say they first fired a gun is 14, according to the Pew Research Center.
Jaden is one of many young shooters who take lessons through Central Illinois Precision Shooters (CIPS), which has a range next to Darnall’s about 15 minutes west of Bloomington-Normal.
GLT visited with several CIPS coaches, students, and parents on a recent Wednesday night. When asked about the national debate raging over guns, they said there’s a gap of understanding between gun enthusiasts and opponents. They said legal gun owners—especially competitive shooters—prioritize gun safety first and foremost and are not the cause of America’s gun violence problem. They want to see more gun opponents to come to the range and see what it’s like.
They say their defense of gun culture is not just about the Second Amendment. They say learning to shoot helps kids mature, gain independence, and respect guns more than their peers.
There’s more room in the middle of the gun debate than we think, said Joe Miller, head coach at CIPS. Miller said Illinois’ gun laws are restrictive enough that they would’ve stopped someone like the Florida shooter before he killed 17 people. But Miller is not opposed to all new gun measures. He said he’d like to see more states reporting information into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), to improve the quality of checks. He said he’d like to see harsher penalties for those caught with a weapon but without a firearm owner’s identification (FOID) card.
“The media is full of the extremes. People are listening, but they’re not hearing. And I don’t have an answer for it. I truly don’t. What happened at (Stoneman Douglas) is just devastating,” Miller said. “I work with kids. I work with adults. And I shoot. And I wish there was an answer.”
In Illinois you must legally be at least 18 to purchase a long gun and at least 21 to purchase a handgun. But there are exceptions; a minor can apply for a FOID card with a parent or legal guardian sponsor.
For many adults who own guns, exposure to guns happened at an early age, according to the Pew Research Center study. About two-thirds of current gun owners (67 percent) say there were guns in their household growing up, and 76 percent report that they first fired a gun before they were 18.
Children as young as 8 begin learning to shoot through 4-H programs, said Kurt Willoughby of Danvers, who teaches at CIPS and through 4-H.
An 8-year-old will typically start off shooting from a laying down position called prone, using a light T-200 sporter air rifle that may be propped up on some sandbags or a table, said Willoughby. (Air rifles are different than traditional firearms in that they typically shoot pellets using compressed air or other gases.)
Willoughby said he loves teaching kids because he gets to see his students mature as they get better.
“That’s our payday. Watching them become responsible young people. It’s a great feeling to see someone come in that looks at their shoes, won’t talk to you. A year later, they’re talking to crowds about shooting sports,” said Willoughby. “We teach them a lot of life skills. It’s a great feeling to help somebody.”
That’s what happened with Ty Scher, a 15-year-old from Farmer City. He shot his first gun by age 8.
“He was quiet. And you could spell quiet with a capital Q,” said Miller, the CIPS coach. “You’d ask him a question or say something to him, and he’d shrug his shoulders. He didn’t use a complete sentence in communicating with me for about six months.”
Scher played team sports like basketball and soccer, but “when he came (to shoot) for the first time I saw excitement I hadn’t seen in those other sports,” said his mother, Vanessa.
Scher, who is homeschooled, became a better problem-solver and more assertive through shooting, Vanessa said. In the past, he was too shy to even ask for help, she said. But recently, Ty even challenged a judge who he felt incorrectly scored his shooting.
“That was an accomplishment in my opinion as a mother,” she said.
Ty said he likes the problem-solving nature of the sport—figuring out, for example, that the setting on his front sight was a little too small during a recent practice, which was making his shots not as tightly grouped as he’d like them. So he opened it up a bit and fixed it.
“You learn a lot about yourself out here,” said Ty.
GUN DEBATE MOVES IN
Ty said he thinks there’s a lack of awareness about the shooting sports that may unfairly shape public opinion on gun control. He said he thinks there’s a way to deal with gun violence in the U.S. without harming his sport.
“When I’m here at the range, I don’t really worry about it that much,” Ty said.
Ty’s brother also shoots.
“I don’t fear that they would ever try to do harm to someone with their gun, with their rifle, just because they have respect for it and what it can do,” Vanessa Scher said. “I’m grateful for that.”
Scher said she too wants policymakers to focus on dangerous people, not guns.
“The person is the where all the motivations are coming from. We need to take more interest in people, and that’s where education comes in,” she said.
To be sure, gun control advocates are not generally trying to take away air rifles or stop teenagers like Jaden and Ty from shooting in competitions. But the competitive shooters at CIPS certainly sense the gun debate moving in.
Miller, who’s worked for years with high schoolers, said young gun-control advocates don’t fully understand what they’re railing against.
“They really don’t know what they’re talking about. They see the evil—and it is evil—in the gun culture. But they’ve never really sat down with a shooter. But they’ve never participated in it, to see what the interest is,” said Miller.
Gun opponents have taken aim at AR-15 assault-style rifles, which were largely banned until 2004. An AR-15-style rifle—like the one used in Parkland—isn’t Jaden’s preferred gun, but she’s shot one before in competition.
“It’s really fun to shoot an AR-15,” Jaden said. “(Banning them) would be like taking a sport away from people, and I don’t think a lot of people think of it that way. It’s kind of like trying to ban football. It’s a sport for some people.”
Willoughby, the coach, said shooting programs like his connect with young people in a way that might prevent future violence.
“With a lot of the (mass shooters), the biggest thing is they don’t have a family life, or it’s a poor family life. Here, we try to create a family life. Whether or not they have it at home or not, they have it here. It’s a safe place. They can come talk to us about anything,” Willoughby said.
Willoughby’s daughter, Shandre, got into shooting after attending an NRA camp at Darnall’s around age 9.
“People I worked with were like, ‘You’re crazy for letting your child go and learn all this stuff,’” said her mother, Vanesa Willoughby.
Shandre, now 15, is also a flute player in her school band.
“Shooting has really improved her confidence level because she’s in control, whether it’s her flute or her rifle—it’s her. Mom and Dad aren’t helping. You’re in charge,” Vanesa said.
Asked if there was room for compromise on guns, Kurt Willoughby said he’d like to think so.
“My biggest fear is that if you give them an inch, they’ll take a foot,” he said.
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