Football and basketball are still the top sports in the public consciousness when it comes to varsity activities. But another sport has been making its move as well – shooting.
Fueled by gun industry funding, college shooting clubs are growing in numbers – and in popularity. According to an article in the Washington Post, these organizations are growing at a surprising rate, including at a diverse range of schools including Yale, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard, the University of Maryland, George Mason University, and even smaller schools such as Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania and Connors State College in Oklahoma.
Students also find their perceptions about guns and shooting are changing. According to the article, some noted the ‘zen’ they find at the shooting range is a welcome break from the rigors of academics.
And that’s precisely what the gun industry hoped it would hear after spending the past few years pouring millions of dollars into collegiate shooting, targeting young adults just as they try out new activities and personal identities.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), a powerful firearms lobbying group, has awarded more than $1 million in grants since 2009 to start about 80 programs. A couple who own a large firearms accessories company created the MidwayUSA Foundation, funding it with nearly $100 million to help youth and college programs, including MIT’s. The National Rifle Association organizes pistol and rifle tournaments, including the national championships next weekend in Fort Benning, Ga.
Zach Snow, who oversees the college shooting program for the NSSF, said, “This is something the industry overlooked for a number of years.”
And now that the industry is paying attention, the growth has been phenomenal. The upcoming collegiate clay target championships — George Mason has won 11 titles, including in 2013 — has swelled from a few hundred shooters in 2010 to more than 700 this year.
The trend shows no sign of slowing down, either.
“We literally have way more students interested than we can handle,” said Steve Goldstein, one of MIT’s pistol coaches.
Though industry groups distribute booklets to students counseling them on how to start programs and deal with reluctant administrators or communities — tips: write letters to the editor in the school paper and sponsor bake sales — officials say the teams have not generated as much pushback as they expected. Shooting is even publicized as a recruiting and teaching tool.
While shooting clubs at the college level are a growing phenomenon, interest can start at a younger age. Since 1969, the National Federation of State High School Associations has tracked student participation in sports. Its annual survey, published at the start of each school year to capture the previous year’s activity, includes a variety of sports – including air rifle teams. And every year since 2010, the overall number of students in that sport has crept upward. Sports such as shooting appeal to non-traditional athletes; other students are finding their niche in archery, bass fishing and bowling.
While high school shooting shows slow, controlled growth, the explosive increase in college shooting clubs might be attributable in part to the fact that students are away from their parents for the first time and thus feel free to explore sports mom and dad otherwise might have nixed. Some students noted they did not spread the news about this particular extracurricular activity to their parents until they had established active participation in it. Then they have to reassure parents they haven’t become ‘gun nuts.'
Kevin Ng, an MIT student, was one of those. According to the Washington Post article, Ng’s parents asked: “Are you going to get shot? Is some crazy guy going to shoot you? Are you going to get in trouble with the state for shooting guns?”
Now, he said, “It’s just really casual. They just want to know if I’m still doing my schoolwork.”