I readily admit that I fall on the far left side of the spectrum when it comes to guns – to me, the more control and regulation that can be imposed by government, the better.
On the day of the San Bernardino attacks, I was once again sickened by the all-too-familiar tragedy. On the same day, on what would seem to be an unrelated topic, I opened up my N.C. State University alumni magazine and read an article about graduation rate percentages of the different athletic programs and saw a sport I didn’t know existed: Mixed Rifle.
I immediately got angry by the fact my alma mater hosted what I assumed to be a “gun club” passing as a sport. I decided to write to NCSU Chancellor Randy Woodson and ask how much of our taxpayer dollars were going to support the program. Should we really be training our students how to be better shots with a deadly weapon? Shouldn’t we stick to the basketball court?
What happened next surprised me. The chancellor responded within 24 hours and included Athletics Director Debbie Yow, who then included the coaches responsible for the Mixed Rifle program. Everyone was more than willing to answer my questions (there are no taxpayer dollars supporting any athletic program, by the way), and within a few days I had an invitation to visit the coaches and students involved and learn more about the program directly. They were willing to give me a personal audience, even though I was certainly not a big-time donor and had basically questioned the entire existence of their program.
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Even though the thought of meeting the “other side” in person was a little scary, I decided to take them up on their offer. Being a graduate of the Public Administration program at N.C. State, I remembered my policy training and decided to have an open mind and recognize there are always many layers to any complex issue.
I met the head coach, Keith Miller, and most of the team one busy weeknight, and none of them was the “gun nut” I thought I might find. Instead, I found thoughtful, smart, engaging and very committed student-athletes, who valued the lessons their sport taught them. And it is a sport, no doubt – it requires precision, skill, years of training to compete at the collegiate level, patience and lots of practice. It also happens to be an Olympic sport, and some students are competing for a coveted spot on this year’s team that will go to Rio this summer. It is a sport that requires almost complete perfection to win – the numbers these students boast are akin to a basketball or football team maybe losing one game every couple seasons (if that), and losing it by only a point.
But what I walked away with was more than just a new appreciation for a sport that happens to use rifles to compete. I noticed how much respect they showed toward proper training and safety when using the rifles. They were eager to share how the sport had helped them with their ability to focus and concentrate that translated to classwork and other issues in life. The team is rare in sport in that it includes men and women equally. And they have had to learn how to explain to skeptical people like me that what they love to do uses a controversial weapon.
It’s not always easy to open ourselves up to new ways of thinking, especially when we think we’ve heard it all and nothing new will ever sway our opinions. I still think we can do better as a country when it comes to guns. But I’m glad these students educated me a little better about one aspect of responsible gun use – and even thanked me for allowing them to do so.
By the way, the most recent graduation rate for the Mixed Rifle program is 100 percent, much like their precision in the sport. Based on the students I met, I don’t expect that percentage to drop anytime soon.
Jill Denning lives in Raleigh.