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 Tribune report 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.
Despite my having been to school in England, this is not too strange a scene to me. Had you come through my school’s gates on a Thursday afternoon, you might have been horrified to see me, along with a motley collection of boys and girls, 16 to 18 years old, dressed in the camouflage of the Combined Cadet Force and carrying SA-80s around. An SA-80 is the standard-issue rifle used by the British army. It would be accurately described as an “assault rifle,” and it is a sufficiently serious piece of equipment to have been given to British soldiers fighting in both Iraq wars and in Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Bosnia, and Northern Ireland. We had to learn strict gun safety. We had to disassemble and reassemble our guns under timed conditions. We had to shoot them at targets that were shaped like men. Once, at the school’s firing range, we even fired a machine gun.
The clay-pigeon shooting group was one of my school’s strongest sports teams, and its members would walk nonchalantly around with their shotguns in bags. Sometimes, they would even take their locked guns to lessons and prop them up against the wall. All of our teachers survived the ordeal.
The notion that guns should form a part of education has a rich pedigree in our republic. In 1785, Thomas Jefferson wrote to his 15-year-old nephew Peter Carr with some scholarly advice. Having instructed him to read “antient history in detail” and expounded a little on which works of “Roman history” and “Greek and Latin poetry” were the most profitable, Jefferson counseled that
a strong body makes the mind strong. As to the species of exercise, I advise the gun. While this gives moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprise and independence to the mind. Games played with the ball and others of that nature are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun therefore be the constant companion of your walks.
Such attitudes would no doubt be regarded as alarming today, as unthinkable as the old — and true — slogan that “America grew up with a rifle in its hand.” So widespread has been the shift in educators’ attitudes that in 1990 Congress legislated to render all schools “gun-free zones.” The law made reasonable exceptions for weapons that were taken to school “for use in a program approved by a school in the school zone” and, regardless, it was struck down on grounds of federal overreach in 1997. Still, that such an exception needed carving out at all would have astonished many a few years earlier, not to mention inconvenienced hundreds of thousands of harmless students who, in the process of going about their business, innocently and safely kept rifles in their cars.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.