Once upon a time, it was common for an American child to be packed off to school with a rifle on his back and for him to come home smiling and safe in the evening. Shooting clubs, now quietly withering away, were once such a mainstay of American high-school life that in the first half of the 20th century they were regularly installed in the basements of new educational buildings. Now, they are in their death throes, victims of political correctness, a willful misunderstanding of what constitutes “gun safety,” and our deplorable tendency toward litigiousness.
In 1975, New York state had over 80 school districts with rifle teams. In 1984, that had dropped to 65. By 1999 there were just 26. The state’s annual riflery championship was shut down in 1986 for lack of demand. This, sadly, is a familiar story across the country. The clubs are fading from memory, too. A Chicago Tribunereport from 2007 notes the astonishment of a Wisconsin mother who discovered that her children’s school had a range on site. “I was surprised, because I never would have suspected to have something like that in my child’s school,” she told the Tribune. The district’s superintendent admitted that it was now a rarity, confessing that he “often gets raised eyebrows” if he mentions the range to other educators. The astonished mother raised her eyebrows — and then led a fight to have the range closed. “Guns and school don’t mix,” she averred. “If you have guns in school, that does away with the whole zero-tolerance policy.”
But how wise is that “zero-tolerance policy”? Until 1989, there were only a few school shootings in which more than two victims were killed. This was despite widespread ownership of — and familiarity with — weapons and an absence of “gun-free zones.” As George Mason University economist Walter E. Williams has observed, for most of American history “private transfers of guns to juveniles were unrestricted. Often a youngster’s 12th or 14th birthday present was a shiny new .22-caliber rifle, given to him by his father.” This was a right of passage, conventional and uncontroversial across the country. “Gee, Dad . . . A Winchester!” read one particularly famous ad. “In Virginia,” Williams writes, “rural areas had a long tradition of high-school students going hunting in the morning before school, and sometimes storing their guns in the trunk of their cars during the school day, parked on the school grounds.” Many of these guns they could buy at almost any hardware store or gas station — or even by mail order. The 1968 Gun Control Act, supported happily by major gun manufacturers who wished to push out their competition, put a stop to this.
Catalogs and magazines from the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s are packed full of gun advertisements aimed at children or parents. “What Every Parent Should Know When a Boy or Girl Wants a Gun,” one proclaims, next to a picture of a young boy and his sister excitedly presenting a “Rifle Catalog.” “Get This Cowboy Carbine with Your Christmas Money,” suggests another. It was placed widely in boys’ magazines by the Daisy Manufacturing Company of Plymouth, Mich. All a teenager needed do to be sent a rifle was send a money order for $2.50 and tick a box confirming they were old enough.
In one cartoon from the 1950s, two boys discuss a rifle in front of their father. “It’s safe for him to use, isn’t it, Dad?” the first boy asks. “Sure,” Dad responds. “Pete knows the code of the junior rifleman.” Back then, Pete almost certainly did. As John Lott Jr. has noted, once upon a time,
it was common for schools to have shooting clubs. Even in New York City, virtually every public high school had a shooting club up until 1969. It was common for high school students to take their guns with them to school on the subways in the morning and turn them over to their homeroom teacher or the gym coach so the heavy guns would simply be out of the way. After school, students would pick up their guns when it was time for practice.
That is, if they handed them in at all. Up until the ’70s, especially in rural areas, it was commonplace to see kids entering and leaving their school campuses with rifle bags slung lazily over their backs. Guns were left in school lockers, and rifles and shotguns were routinely seen in high-school parking lots, hanging in the rear windows of pickup trucks. A good friend of mine is from North Dakota. His father was telling me recently that in the late 1960s he would hunt before school and then take his rifle — and his bloodstained kills — to school to show his teachers. He and his friends would compare their shooting techniques in the school grounds. Nobody batted an eyelid. In North Dakota, school shootings were non-existent; in the country at large, they were extremely rare.