Faced with fewer hunters, W. Va. considers offering gun training in schools
Friday, February 1, 2008
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A significant drop in the number of hunters in West Virginia has left a hole in the state's budget, and one lawmaker thinks he has a solution: allow children to receive hunter training in school.
Children as young as 10 years old are already eligible for hunting licenses in the state, but training courses are typically offered outside of school. Proponents of the plan hope embedding training during school hours boosts interest.
Seventh- through ninth-graders could opt for instruction in topics ranging from survival skills to gun safety, but the weapons would have dummy ammunition or be disabled. Sen. Billy Wayne Bailey, who introduced the bill this month, doesn't envision students firing real guns during class time.
"It's a way to take this kind of education in the classroom and make it more convenient for young people," said Bailey, a Wyoming County Democrat.
In the face of national concern about school violence, the presence of even disabled guns in school could seem incongruous, but some gun control advocates say careful supervision can ease concerns.
The primary concern of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence is children with unauthorized access to guns, spokesman Brian Malte said, and the organization has no problem with supervised training programs.
"We let TV baby-sit our children," Bailey said. "This is a way to teach them there's a real consequence every time you pull a trigger."
West Virginia, where roughly 320,000 people participated in the recent two-week gun season for bucks, may be the only state contemplating such a bill, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Although it still ranks in the top six nationally for sales of hunting permits to nonresidents, West Virginia sold 154,763 permits to residents in 2006, a 17 percent decrease from 1997, according to the state Division of Natural Resources.
The decline is being felt at the state Capitol. This month, Gov. Joe Manchin proposed spending $1.8 million on the DNR's law enforcement efforts to make up for revenue lost because of the decline of hunting and fishing permits.
"West Virginia is probably in better shape than other states, but this is really rather disconcerting from our perspective," said Paul Johansen, DNR assistant chief of wildlife management.
Nationally, the number of hunters 16 and older was about 12.5 million in 1996, a 10 percent decline from 2006, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Part of West Virginia's problem is it doesn't require senior citizens to buy a hunting license. The state has one of the oldest populations per capita in the nation, and the ranks of hunters aren't being replenished by young people.
To secure a license, residents have to complete at least 10 hours of training and be at least 10 years old when they take the test, which includes demonstrating proper gun safety. Would-be hunters have to show they can load and unload a gun, carry it across obstacles, and keep the muzzle pointed in the right direction. The fee for a license is $33.
Three groups -- the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance and the National Wild Turkey Federation -- have been pushing to get more young people hunting in part by lobbying states to reduce restrictions on young hunters. Since their effort began in 2004, the group points to legislative successes in 12 states.
"The hunting population in general is aging, and it's not being replaced by young hunters," said Tony Aeschliman, spokesman for the Newtown, Conn.-based National Shooting Sports Foundation.