A rite of summer camp comes under scrutiny

Riflery: In wake of school shootings, some conscience-stricken camp supervisors are putting the guns away.

June 24, 1999|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Camp Chief Ouray, nestled in the snow-capped Colorado Rockies, is home to wild elk, an overflowing trout stream and an array of breathtaking vistas. But these days, something forbidding has moved in: fear about children mixing with guns.

Chief Ouray is one of a growing number of summer camps around the country that have halted their riflery programs -- or enacted other anti-gun measures -- in response to the rampage at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., and the outcry against youth violence that followed.

As much a rite of summer camp as toasted marshmallows and Popsicle-stick birdhouses, riflery is under scrutiny for seemingly promoting the use of guns and demystifying their power among children. To be sure, most camps with riflery programs say they have no plans to drop the activity, deeming riflery not only a challenging target sport but also an effective way to teach gun safety.

But this summer, in the wake of recent school violence in Colorado and Georgia, a handful of conscience-stricken camp supervisors are putting the guns away.

"The thought that ran through my mind was, `What if we had an accident with a rifle, or what if some kid did turn around and shoot a rifle at another child -- how could I justify that we had this riflery program going on?' " said Kent Meyer, managing director of the YMCA division that oversees Camp Chief Ouray.

Meyer decided to suspend the camp's 92-year-old riflery program as he was driving to a camp meeting on the one-month anniversary of the Colorado school tragedy. En route, he heard a radio report about the school shooting in Conyers, Ga. That steeled his resolve.

"That kid opened fire with a .22 rifle, and we also use .22 rifles for target shooting at camp," Meyer said. "I see them as weapons."

Compounding his anxiety: Many campers at Chief Ouray come from the Littleton area -- a handful of Columbine students are campers -- and some parents had expressed concern about their children hearing gunfire at the overnight camp.

Beyond Chief Ouray, reactions are similarly intense. This week, Camp Echo Hill on the Eastern Shore permanently dropped riflery after offering the program for decades. In New Hampshire, the director of camps Kenwood and Evergreen canceled the 69-year-old riflery program and -- as if to hammer home the point -- is considering destroying the guns instead of selling them.

Some campfire songs banned

For the first time this year, Camp Chewonki in Wiscasset, Maine, is banning any campfire songs that mention guns. Several camps are tightening security. And so many camps plan to search children's luggage that the American Camping Association has issued instructions on how best to do so.

Camp Friendship in Palmyra, Va., is forbidding campers from wearing all-black Goth-style outfits similar to those favored by the young Columbine killers. Timber Lake Camp in Shandaken, N.Y., is ditching its paint-ball excursion because it strikes camp supervisors as a glorified shootout.

Adding to the tension, some anti-gun groups have accused the gun industry of long using summer camp to cultivate a new generation of gun users -- as the gun lobby's political causes and public image have come under extraordinary attack in the wake of Columbine.

The National Rifle Association, which has launched ads to reach out to young people, certifies many camp riflery teachers and offers grants to 4-H chapters for summer target-shooting courses. Despite the uproar after Columbine, the National Shooting Sports Foundation is promoting its new program, "Take Your Best Shot," for youth rifle, shotgun and air gun shooting. It has sent pamphlets to summer wilderness and hunting programs that have reached 250,000 children.

"The gun industry and its advocates view it as a perfect opportunity to bring kids into contact with firearms," said Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center. "They've already lost a generation of kids who are not coming into the gun culture, and they want to do something about it."

Gun industry advocates counter that the National Rifle Association's two-day training course teaches children responsibility around guns -- something they say most might not learn otherwise. Supporters of riflery programs argue that demonizing riflery is a superficial response to the complicated issue of youth violence and a knee-jerk reaction to mounting public pressure over what to do about the problem.

"It's a society issue," said Larry Ference, research and information services director for the National Shooting Sports Foundation. "I would much rather have youth being educated as to guns than having them be curious about them. When there's a big mystique about guns, that's when kids get into trouble."

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