By Bob Cohn
Brendan Boyle was hanging out with friends, wearing his Woodland Hills High School rifle team sweatshirt, when a passer-by took note, stopped and shared a few thoughts.
It was shortly after the Sandy Hook school shooting in December, and Boyle, a senior and the team captain, cannot recall the exact words. But the gist of the man's unsolicited comments was “It's not safe. Guns shouldn't be in schools,” Boyle said. He added that the man “apologized” but emphasized that he “really wanted to voice his displeasure.”
Boyle recounted the episode after competing in the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League rifle championships last week in North Strabane. Inside a low-ceilinged, bare-bones shooting range, high school boys and girls lying prone on mats fired .22-caliber bullets at paper targets 50 feet away. It was a rigidly supervised and tightly controlled environment. Safety measures were stated and repeated. Tension and the smell of gunpowder hung in the air, a world unto itself.
Meanwhile, on the outside, in what might be considered the real world, the national conversation about gun control and gun violence, gun purchases and gun ownership and all other matters gun related continued to boil, unabated.
Those involved in the sporting aspect of the gun debate (the one that involves shooting paper) are not deaf to the chatter. They are acutely aware of a hot-button topic about which opinions are plentiful and freely stated, sometimes by passing strangers. They are expressed calmly or with great fervor, in black and white or shades of gray. Those involved are acutely aware, too, of their place in such a landscape.
“I grew up with it,” said Jon Hammond, coach of the NCAA top-ranked West Virginia University rifle team, who spent his childhood in Scotland and recalls the 1996 Dunblane massacre in which 16 schoolchildren and a teacher were killed. “For a little while maybe, I think it hurt the sport back home, the way it was viewed.
“But our sport lacks exposure, and so a lot of time people don't necessarily have the knowledge and understanding of what the sport is about, the benefits and the life skills it can teach.”
In other words, “frustration begins where knowledge ends,” said Woodland Hills coach Matt Rodriguez, echoing a popular refrain in the sport.
John Husk, the Trinity High School coach for 25 years and architect of the most successful WPIAL rifle program during that time, is well-armed for the discussion. Husk, who teaches classes in manufacturing and television production and operates a winery, was happy to touch on a number of subjects.
On the matter of security, Husk said guns and ammunition are stored in locked, “bank-quality” vaults, or in safes, and access is rigidly controlled. Safety? “No one's had a concussion; no one's broken a leg,” he said. Knowledge? “My kids have a big respect for firearms because they've been exposed to it.”
His fellow coaches — all certified instructors, nearly all of them lifelong devotees of the sport — gladly chimed in.
“People say they're anti-gun, but they're really anti-violence,” said Hempfield's Tom Miller, coach of the 2013 championship team. “A gun is no more than a tool.”
“It's a physically demanding, mentally demanding sport,” Mt. Lebanon coach Dave Williard said. “One thing about the sport: You can do it as long as you can walk.”
Participating in rifle “has made me more mature,” said Boyle. “It's not like, ‘I'm shooting a gun.' It's having the right mental game, and you can't do that if you're not mature.”
Boyle said he gave a calm, measured — some might say mature — response to the man who approached him, explaining the competitive buzz he gets from the sport, the stringent safety measures and the skill level involved, the team's classroom success, the camaraderie, the discipline and how each participant is “incredibly responsible,” he said.
Boyle, 17, also plays the mellophone, a brass instrument similar to a French horn, in the marching band and is interested in musical theater. He said he has been accepted by three colleges so far. He expresses no firm opinion on the gun issue, mainly because “there's no need to,” he said. “As long as these rifles are in a controlled environment, there's nothing to worry about.”
"It's an organized sport,” she said, “just like any other sporting activity.”