I have written this column for nearly two decades and have voiced opinions on subjects as controversial as overzealous Little League parents, gratuitous violence in ice hockey, and illegal doping. But no columns I have written for Vermont Sports have stimulated the intense feedback of “Taking a Stand on Guns” in 2003 and “Too Many Guns,” published five years ago, in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech tragedy. As I pointed out at that time, I am no stranger to firearms. As a member of the US Biathlon Team from 1968 through 1976, I shot more rounds of ammunition in training and competition than the vast majority of sport shooters will fire during their entire lifetimes. Living in Alaska for a decade, I took full advantage of that hunter’s paradise, filling the freezer with moose meat, Dall sheep, caribou, spruce grouse, and ptarmigan.
As an infantry advisor to the South Vietnamese in 1970, I was rarely more than arms length from my M-16, even when I slept. In fact, it would be accurate to say that I have had extensive experience with firearms in their three most widely accepted roles: marksmanship, hunting, and self-protection.
In my view, all human life is precious, but the recent shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School seems even more senseless than Virginia Tech, Aurora, Colorado, and even Columbine High School because it is hard to imagine victims more innocent and defenseless than first graders and their teachers. As news of the tragedy dominated our national consciousness, I was struck by an unbelievable irony; Newtown, Connecticut, is also the home of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the association representing the firearms industry whose mission is to “promote, protect, and preserve hunting and the shooting sports.” I must confess that my first reaction was, “wow, talk about reaping what you sow.”
As the industry’s representative, the NSSF considers semiautomatic weapons (one shot for each pull of the trigger) the natural evolution of shooting technology. Semiautomatic weapons were originally designed for the military, but were quickly adapted for civilian use in hunting or marksmanship. Semiautomatic rifles and shotguns have been popular with hunters for about a century. But many of the avid hunters I know are shifting back toward bolt-action rifles, muzzleloaders, and even archery to enhance the sporting aspect of deer, moose, and turkey hunting. I don’t know anyone who hunts with a Bushmaster XM 15 with a 30-round magazine, one of the weapons Adam Lanza used to kill 26 students and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary.
But my initial reaction was misguided. In fact, the NSSF has done much through the years to promote firearms safety. Since 1999, the organization has distributed, for free, more than 35 million gun locks, significantly reducing the accidental discharge of weapons in homes across America. The NSSF has worked with the Veterans Administration to provide every veteran returning from a combat zone gun locks and safety kits. And for many years, the NSSF funded a summer biathlon program that organized running and shooting events across the country. One aspect of that effort was to recruit a talented, European coach, Algis Shalna, a 1984 Sarajevo Olympic biathlon gold medalist from Lithuania, who has inspired and motivated American athletes for more than two decades. Not long ago, one of Algis’ protégés struck it rich. At the recent Biathlon Youth and Junior World Championship held in Obertilliach, Austria, 17-year-old Sean Doherty of Center Conway, New Hampshire, earned a gold medal, and the distinction of World Champion, in the 10-kilometer pursuit event. Sean had won a silver a couple of days earlier in the 7.5-kilometer sprint race and followed up his gold medal performance in the pursuit with another silver medal in the 12.5-kilometer individual event. It was the first time an American biathlete has earned three medals at the same World Championships. A couple of weeks later, America’s top biathlete, Tim Burke of Paul Smiths, New York, won a silver medal in the 20-kilometer event at the World Championships!
The US biathletes have made steady progress internationally, and many believe a medal is possible at next winter’s Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Some of the credit for this success should go to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which generously supported a successful summer program and made it possible for talented coaches like Algis Shalna to emigrate to the United States of America.
As is the case with so many issues in our modern society, gun control is a very complex one. I don’t believe the average American citizen has any need for an AK-47 or an M-16 with a 30-round magazine. Most of the hunters I know rarely require more than three shots to drop the animal they are stalking. Meanwhile, Tim Burke, young Sean Doherty, and their teammates have brought honor to us all by skiing fast and hitting their targets.
As someone who has competed internationally, filled the freezer, and defended myself in combat with a firearm, I have an appreciation and respect for rifles. But we obviously have to do a better job of making firearms, especially those with such an incredible capacity for destruction, less accessible to those with malicious intent.