What Happened to Middle School Rifle Club?

What Happened to Middle School Rifle Club?

Photo credit: Keith R. Crowley/

I was searching the internet the other day for a story about an old school friend who has become something of a target shooting phenom. I hadn’t been searching long when I came across an article about a young female student expelled from her high school for having a water pistol in her possession. I read on, hoping the article would clarify that she wasn’t actually expelled for that. Maybe she was just suspended for a few days to teach her the ever-important lesson that reactionaries now rule the world. But no, the young lady was, in fact, expelled.

I then came across a story about a Tennessee student expelled for having an unloaded, disassembled "assault" rifle in the trunk of his car. He didn’t have any ammunition either, but expulsion was the result nonetheless. I suppose if I had kept digging, I could have come up with a hundred more stories with the same outcome. That’s just the state of things in 2018.

Further digging produced data that says 1,576 U.S. students were found in possession of firearms on school property in the 2015-2016 school year. This info comes from the National Center for Education Statistics. Just out of curiosity I took a quick look at my home state of Minnesota, and it turns out that 26 students were found in possession of firearms on school property in the same 2015-2016 school year. And that number has increased each of the last five years.

Now let me take you back to 1975 and to my old school district in Minnesota. Among the many extracurricular activities offered by my middle school were the usual options: marching band, 4-H, chess club, drama club, debate club, the choir and, of course, a slew of athletic options. All were offered to give students something to do after school and were usually designed to boost discipline, confidence and a sense of responsibility. I participated in a few of those activities, but there was one in particular that I enjoyed the most: rifle club.

The rifle club was supported by an NRA Marksmanship Program, which at the time was treated by the school district like any other student extracurricular activity. The program had deep roots in schools across the country and began in the early 20th century—long before 1973 when I arrived at Carl Sandburg Junior High in Golden Valley, Minn.

There were only a few of us in the program at Sandburg but we were a dedicated bunch. Every week we assembled at the front entrance of our school with cased rifles slung over our shoulders. Yes, you read that right: We stood inside the school with .22 rifles in our hands. (Cue the gasps from the modern school administrators.) There we were, holding functional rifles, preparing ourselves to take a district-owned school bus to the local high school, which had a rifle range in the basement.

This wasn’t just a long hallway back in the dark recesses of the basement with sandbags at one end. It was a dedicated shooting range much like the one you probably use in your town today. It had target hangers and mechanical trolleys to move targets up and down range. It had an air lock between the common area and the range itself to minimize noise, and I believe it even had station partitions. It was a great place to learn the art of marksmanship.

I acquired several marksmanship badges that I was immensely proud to have. I’m still friends with a couple of the club members, too. And we all still enjoy shooting.

Here’s another surprise. Other than one of my old friends who gets an awful lot of speeding tickets, not one of us has ever been in serious trouble with the law. There are no felonies in our backgrounds, no mass shootings. No one has robbed a bank or liquor store. There have been no terroristic threats or jail terms. We are just mainstream American recreational shooters and hunters who cut our teeth shooting guns with the expressed consent and assistance of our local school. We leaned early to respect firearms and to use them responsibly—inside a high school.

Right now I can hear the usual suspects cursing under their collective breath and coming up with a litany of reasons why kids today are different—and why guns never can be allowed in schools. But all their arguments ring hollow because, despite zero-tolerance-policies and hand-wringing vigils, kids are still being killed in schools. So what has changed? The kids sure haven’t. But the media has. So has parenting. And school administrators are different, too. These days in Minnesota a student can get escorted off school grounds for holding a pro-Second Amendment sign. (So much for the First Amendment.)

The silver lining to all this is that organized school shooting teams are gaining massive momentum right now in numerous rural school districts. For example, since 2008 my home state of Minnesota has offered high school clay shooting as a sanctioned sport. My adopted state of Wisconsin soon joined in along with several other states, and the NRA-sponsored Youth National Clay Target Championship just concluded in Michigan. This blossoming interest in shooting sports by young people is sure to help de-stigmatize firearms in general—and recreational shooting in particular. To that I say, “Welcome back “rifle club!” I missed you.