- The Washington Times - Monday, July 3, 2000

If Hollywood were casting the part of a gun-proud parent, it would never choose Edwin Vieira. The Prince William County, Va., dad looks more like a professor than the stereotyped, tattooed, gun "nut" often portrayed in editorial cartoons and big-screen blood baths.
He'll never make headlines either as Rosie O'Donnell did when she outfitted her bodyguard with a gun. Parents like Mr. Vieira will just keep quietly teaching their children how to fire and care for guns safely.
Mr. Vieira and like-minded parents are not ashamed to be ribbed by co-workers or endure the tsk-tsking of neighbors who believe handguns should be melted into plowshares.
Gun-control activists use the 1998 shooting massacre of 12 students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., as an enduring political symbol invoked when the subject of teens and guns come up.
Even fictitious youngsters shooting guns can engender hysteria. The Drudge Report posted a story earlier this month that a screening of Mel Gibson's new film, "The Patriot," drew gasps when a boy took up arms against approaching Redcoats.

Putting politics aside

But a significant part of American culture the Edwin Vieiras of the country carry on as they have for years, teaching their sons and daughters to handle firearms. It is a family tradition, not a question of politics.
Some of Mr. Vieira's neighbors don't see past the stereotypes or the politics to hear the value of teaching children to handle weapons.
It's mostly the shooting that bothers them.
"I get the impression of nervousness about it [from them]," he said.
Parents who don't teach their offspring gun safety themselves enroll them in 4-H shooting classes, pay for private instruction, or send them to safety and shooting camps run by the National Rifle Association (NRA).
The parents of children enrolled in Maj. Fred Fees' shooting classes in Brentsville, Va., often watch the rounds spit from their children's guns at a safe distance but close enough to monitor and take pride in their progress.
Maj. Fees' classes, and others like them, will never get the big media exposure of Columbine unless tragedy were to strike.
Don't hold your breath waiting for that, said Maj. Fees.
"We don't have mishaps on the range or at home," said Maj. Fees, who blanches if you mistakenly call a gun a weapon. Virtually any object can become a weapon, the Nokesville, Va., resident will explain, from a rock to a candlestick holder.
In fact, the NRA has decided to take a page from families like those in Prince William who do not hide or back away from their beliefs. At its annual convention in May, the association revealed plans for a series of family-oriented restaurants that may or may not feature electronic shooting ranges.

A rightful place in the world

"We are going to take our rightful place in the world," said Charlton Heston, NRA president during the association's convention. The centers will have wild game dishes antelope steaks, venison stews on the menu, and they will sell NRA merchandise.
Brian Morton's first response to the NRA's plan to place one of the NRASportsBlast restaurants in Times Square was "unrestrained laughter." Mr. Morton is spokesman for Handgun Control Inc. in the District of Columbia.
"Politically, it's one of the most unwise things they could do. If they want to glorify shooting, a lot of Americans have a problem with that," he said.
He said the NRA's strategy appears "double barreled" throwing red meat, or hard-core propaganda, to its members while appearing "family friendly" via its proposed theme centers.
For the quiet segment of society that Mr. Vieira represents, the terms family and guns need not be mutually exclusive.
Maj. Fees, who calls himself "77 years young," said he has never met a child who wasn't fascinated by a gun.
He also wanted to add something else.
"I've never seen a child that was trained correctly use a gun incorrectly," said Maj. Fees, a barrel-chested man who also served as a fighter pilot during World War II and in Korea, and as a sniper. He is certified by the state to teach the use of shotguns, as well as rifles, not an easy certificate to earn.
"My goal is to teach them the proper way to use [a firearm] and respect it," said Maj. Fees, whose students range from 8-year-olds to 19.
Mr. Vieira has more than enough gun know-how to pass along to his daughter. But he decided to lean on Maj. Fees' considerable wisdom instead.
"I've been a shooter for many years, but it's better to have someone outside the immediate family teach [children]," said Mr. Vieira, who enrolled his daughter Mairin, 13, in Maj. Fees' 4-H Shooting Sports Program.

Discipline and etiquette

Mr. Vieira wouldn't think of plunking a teen-ager behind the wheel of a car without furnishing driving lessons. Guns should be no different, he said.
"There are rules to be followed, and you have to maintain that," he said.
The lessons don't simply involve bullet-riddled targets. Matters of etiquette and discipline come lockstep with their lessons.
"It creates a sense of responsibility," he said. "There's all sorts of significance built into it."
"They never had a lax behavior [around guns]," he said of his own children. "Now, they're more polished as they go along. They're at the adult stage, they've learned all the basics to where it's instinctive."
Maj. Fees, whose cap covers a military-ready crew cut, runs a tight ship. His rough-hewn voice booms throughout a recent shooting class. It's a far cry from a yell, but its potency resonates with the students. It gets his troop of students moving, with little horseplay or undisciplined steps.
He fixes you with a stare that makes you feel like a shave-tailed private. Then his face dissolves into a smile. His students love it when that happens. The pugnacious instructor holds a strong, affectionate bond with them.
Not everyone is on the same page as Maj. Fees and his pupils, though.
Arinn Dixon, the violence-prevention director for Physicians for Social Responsibility, doesn't think guns belong in the hands of children. Period.

Gun critic fires back

"Gun education may be beneficial, but it's not the right answer we're looking for," Miss Dixon said. "We believe children should never have access to guns."
Allowing children such freedom "puts the responsibility on the child to not have an accident with a gun," she said.
"There are so many problems with the teen years … access to guns can only lead to suicide [or] other things."
She dismissed the belief of parents and even Maj. Fees that lessons demystify guns in the minds of youngsters. She called their conclusions "anecdotal."
Miss Dixon opposes not just 4-H's teachings, but that of the NRA's Eddie Eagle program.
She mocks the warning NRA mascot Eddie Eagle gives children "Stop. Don't Touch. Tell an adult" when they see a gun. It is the NRA's favorite counterpunch to critics who say the Fairfax-based association sends children a dangerous message by its very existence.
"Eddie Eagle … never says to kids that a gun is dangerous and can kill you," Miss Dixon says.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, both New York Democrats who have been vocal in their calls for gun control, did not return repeated calls for comment.
David Silbur, professor of psychology at George Washington University, said shooting classes can be positive, as long as enough care is invested in the program.

Classes don't harm, they help

"Until society decides to limit private ownership, there is a great virtue in teaching people respect for the weapons they use," said Mr. Silbur, who has worked as a private consultant for the U.S. Secret Service and taught courses in the psychology of guns and violence for more than two decades.
"I don't think [the classes] can do harm," he said, even if taught to children from at-risk communities. "The more a person knows about weapons, the more likely they'll have some sense of what they can do."
Part of a child's preoccupation with guns stems from a culture that transfers near-cult status to anyone brandishing one, he said.
"The media … perpetuates the shoot-em-up hero as someone to be emulated," he said.
The country's view of the two killers at the high school in Littleton, Colo., is beginning to fade. Times passes. Passions cool. Politicians, however, continue to feast on the carnage.
Mr. Vieira refuses to blame the school killings on guns.
"[Columbine] was a moral problem, not a gun problem. That wasn't an accident with guns," he said.
Anita Sager from Manassas, Va., said it is foolish to link Columbine with gun-shooting courses.
"The kids who are using the guns [recklessly] are the ones who don't know about safety," Mrs. Sager said.
When it comes time for class, Maj. Fees makes sure the parents help out, even lending a hand teaching the course.
"Every time a parent brings me a child, I hand them two applications," he said. "The one thing I'm not is a baby sitter."
Mrs. Sager grew up in a household with guns, though she never shot one herself.

Females outnumber males

"My dad shot guns, but us girls didn't shoot … that was a boy thing," Mrs. Sager said. That isn't the case today. Maj. Fees' class, for example, is predominantly female.
When Mrs. Sager decided her children would become involved with shooting sports, she said, "If we're gonna do guns, we're gonna do the safety thing.
"Everything they do with guns, they do with an adult mentor," she said. "There's no 'I'm sorry' when I pull the trigger."
Now, she's watched her 14-year-old daughter, Kim, grow more confident under the training.
The media's infatuation with Columbine and other cases of schoolroom bloodshed, such as that of Nathaniel Brazill, 13, who is accused of shooting his teacher in West Palm Beach, Fla., last month, has not dampened enthusiasm for shooting courses.
"There have been isolated closures of school shooting teams, but it's not a trend," said John Robbins, communications manager with the National Rifle Association. "I don't think it's resulted in any widespread panic."
The number of high school shooting teams, between 275 and 300 nationwide, has been "fairly stable" despite the high-profile incidents.
The NRA, a lightning rod for anti-gun efforts, offers its own child-centric training program.
"People who hate NRA politics love Eddie Eagle," Mr. Robbins said. The Eddie Eagle GunSafe Program, which began in 1988, has reached 13 million children through more than 20,000 law enforcement agencies, schools and civic groups.

Looking straight in the eyes

The children enrolled in Maj. Fees' class have advanced far beyond Eddie Eagle's well-inten-
tioned methods. Each delivers a firm handshake, looks strangers square in the eyes and loves to talk about their exploits on the firing range.
Nick Heflin, 11, from Haymarket, has been shooting air rifles since he was about 5.
"If you live in the country, you grow up with guns. There's nothing wrong with it," Nick said so long as you follow the proper precautions.
"Fred is always stressing the safety of guns and how they should be respected," he said.
Chris Olsen, 15, of Haymarket sees shooting as a possible springboard to college via scholarships. "I'm pretty good," he said. "Mom said it runs in the family,"
Mr. Vieira's daughter, Mairin, has no plans on abandoning her new passion.
"This type of shooting is easier for [girls]. It's very fun to do and it's not that difficult," she said.
Parent Mary LeCompte of Manassas has always made sure her children knew how to handle guns.
"When my kids were born, I wanted them to shoot guns. That was my goal," she said. "I know kids are curious about guns."
Her job is to make sure their curiosity turns into a healthy respect for firearms. It is the least she could do.
"When we first started, they would grab a gun and say, hey, look at this. They got that out of their system." Now, with plenty of instruction absorbed, "they'd no sooner play with a gun than a vacuum cleaner," she said.

Neighbors go tsk-tsk

Some parents don't share her opinions.
"They think guns were made to kill people. They don't see the sport in it. I keep telling them it's an Olympic event," she said.
"There's much more scary things [than guns]. There are more injuries in other games," Mrs. LeCompte said. "Kids get hurt playing basketball. I've never come close to seeing an accident with guns."
Nikki LeCompte, 15, says her shooting has helped her with other parts of life.
"I have to focus when I shoot," Nikki said. And she brings that focus to her school work.
Even gun-control advocates see some merit in proper gun education.
Sultana Edna Gorham Bey, former chairman of the Million Mom March's D.C. chapter, laments that "guns will always be among us."
But Miss Gorham Bey praised the efforts of Maj. Fees and those like him who instruct children in the proper safety measures needed when dealing with guns.
"I don't think the 4-H is so out of line," Miss Gorham Bey said.
"If a child knows how to use a gun, maybe he won't accidentally shoot his finger off. If they see a gun on a table, I want them to know how to handle the situation," she said.
John Cox, 9, of Fairfax Station, is new to the ways of the gun.
"My dad gave me the idea and it sounded like fun," the boy said. So far, his hunch has proven true, and he hasn't witnessed anything destructive to change his mind.
Chris Cox, John's father, enrolled his son in the class after hearing radio talk show host G. Gordon Liddy extol the virtues of proper gun use.
"Different people have talked about how it's good to train children at an early age," Mr. Cox said.
But for Mr. Cox, the classes' appeal is far from simple gun play.
Maj. Fees and his assistants "give you direct eye contact. A lot of kids aren't getting that time, 'Go do it by yourself, they're told.'
"Kids want attention. When kids are taught safety and how to conduct themselves in a safe manner, they're responsible," he said. "It's important to teach them at an early age.
"I believe if a kid is not taught anything, they're going to be reckless, and parents are too busy these days [to teach them]," he said.

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