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Rifle teams are coming back--and some anti-gunners are applauding


Emily Houston, a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a member of its rifle team, takes aim at a target. Houston, who learned to shoot over 10 years ago, represents a trend in America that is seeing a growth in the number of high school-age rifle teams.

Emily Houston remembers quite clearly how sibling rivalry got her interested in shooting a rifle.

Eleven years ago in a tiny town in northern Virginia, her father would take her older brother weekly to the shooting range and teach him the finer points of gun safety and marksmanship.

“I didn’t want to be left alone,” said Houston, now 19. “So I said, ‘You have to take me, too.’”

Her insistence paid off. Last year Houston became the national junior three-position champion, which includes the standing, sitting and kneeling positions. She was also accepted at MIT, a feat made easier with her rifle-shooting achievements on her application.

“Even if I’ve had a bad day, I know I can pick up my rifle, focus and fire a perfect shot,” Houston said. “I don’t have that control over any other part of my life.”

Houston is one of a growing number of American youths who are signing up for competitive gun sports. An aggressive push by the National Rifle Association and a search by parents for unusual sports that can attract college scholarships are fueling a revival of high school shooting clubs across suburban and rural communities.

In the Washington area, for instance, the Arlington Optimist Acorns Combined Junior Rifle League only had three participating teams a decade ago. Today it has 11.

“There are probably 3.5 million kids in these programs” nationwide, said John Robins, a spokesman for the NRA. “Shooting is a lifetime sport.”

The NRA started organizing youth shooting teams in New York City in 1905. Since then, it has expanded efforts to include camps, clinics, tournaments and clubs for minors. Last year the organization donated more than $800,000 to 316 youth shooting programs nationwide, Robins said.

Many argue that shooting enhances discipline and concentration. “It lets them know some things don’t come easily,” said Brian Rummel, who coaches 15 students at Conemaugh Township Area High School in Davidsville, Pa. “Anybody can pull a trigger, but it takes real concentration” to shoot perfectly.

Girls, he said, are signing up in equal numbers with boys.

“This is the only sport that I know of where girls go head-to-head with guys,” Rummel said.

To those who worry about giving teenagers access to firearms, Rummel says safety is his foremost priority. Practices take place off school property at a professional shooting range, where weapons are locked up when not in use.

Students are under adult supervision and they’re off the team if they violate safety rules. Even if a student has no previous experience with guns, Rummel said a rifle team helps promote a healthy appreciation for gun safety.

Rummel starts out every session with a thorough lesson on gun handling and etiquette. Only after some time do the students go to the range and try to hit targets, about 90 feet away. Then they spend months refining their technique.

“Most of the kids can outshoot me when they’re done,” he said.

Ironically, high school rifle teams have an unlikely ally: the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence, an advocacy group that lobbies for gun control. (The group is named for James Brady, who was shot and paralyzed when John Hinckley Jr. tried to assassinate President Reagan in 1981.)

Paul Helmke, the president of the campaign, said the increase in rifle teams "is something that’s probably good. I would hope it would make students responsible gun owners if they decide to own guns.”

Those who are trained in gun safety and feel comfortable around firearms are far more likely to respect them than those without such training, Helmke said. However, he is wary of the NRA’s involvement.

“The NRA gets into the high schools and the kids think they are participating in something positive, but at the same time they are advancing a political agenda,” said Helmke, who himself has NRA-sanctioned shooting merit badges on his office desk from his boyhood days at a YMCA camp.

“It’s sort of a back-door way to build influence and advance their agenda," he said. "A school or high school club should be very questioning when taking money from a group like this.”

At the Arlington Optimist Acorns Combined Junior Rifle League, training is the name of the game. “The kids that have been at this for a while have honed their ability to concentrate and that has a huge spillover effect into their academic life,” said Floyd Houston, 55, president of the league and Emily’s father. “It’s not fast violence. It’s focus, concentration, self-discipline.”

For Andrew Brandis, who comes from a long line of deer hunters, being on a rifle team meant one thing: firepower.

“When you are younger, you always wanted to shoot a gun, and when you join the team you can, and it’s cool,” said Brandis, 17, who shoots with his father at a gun club in Berwick, Maine. “It’s competitive. You’re always trying to get better accuracy than your buddies.”

The test Brandis and his classmates took--one administered by the NRA--reviews everything from range safety to gun care. To pass in Rummel's program, students must score the equivalent of 96 percent.

Back at MIT, Emily Houston is busy on the school’s rifle team, and is thinking about trying out for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“That’s an opportunity I can’t pass up,” she said. “Shooting, though, is a lifelong sport. That’s one of my goals: to be shooting when I’m 80.”