A shooting range on a high school campus?
Johnston County has one.
Smithfield-Selma High School students, after extensive training, use air rifles to shoot lead pellets at targets in the 1,200-square-foot, four-lane indoor shooting range, which used to be greenhouse.
On the range, each student is a safety officer, monitoring other shooters for potential hazards.
“They all have each others’ backs,” said David Wegman, a 30-year Navy veterans and a senior naval science instructor at SSS.
In the range, students position themselves and their air rifles, waiting for the signal to fire once all is clear. Then come the clicks and loud pings of pellets hitting targets down range.
When they’re done, the students complete paperwork and lock up the weapons in a padlocked armory in the school’s main building.
The air rifle marksmanship program is available through the school’s Navy Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, or JROTC, and the Civilian Marksmanship Program.
Before the Junior ROTC program at SSS moved forward with its idea for a range, it polled students; they approved it unanimously.
In order to take part in the marksmanship program, students must have permission from their parents, be in good academic standing and complete extensive training. After the training, students must earn a perfect score on a marksmanship-safety exam.
While the program has been well received by the school and community, work on the range is not complete.
“Our new range still desperately needs a four-foot walkway poured to the front door and a heating and air-conditioning system,” Wegman said.
The estimates are $2,500 for the sidewalk and $5,000 for the heating and cooling system.
The school can accept tax-deductible donations payable to the SSS NJROTC and sent to the school at 700 Booker Dairy Road, Smithfield, N.C. 27577.
Junior ROTC cadets and carpentry students under faculty supervision did most of the work to make the range a reality, with a contractor helping out.
The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, National Shooting Safety Foundation and American Legion Post 132 in Smithfield donated $10,500 to turn the greenhouse into a shooting range. Work began last year, and students began using the range this spring.
Because of Junior ROTC, SSS already had an armory full of rifles and other equipment, which Wegman said amounted to thousands of dollars “just sitting there.”
“That’s not good stewardship, nor is it fair for our cadets,” he said.
The Army National Guard in Smithfield has a range students can use, but the logistics of getting students and their equipment there and back were hard to manage, Principal Steve Baker said.
The greenhouse on campus, set to be demolished, offered an alternative.
“The commander had a vision,” Baker said of Wegman. “He saw a way to meet that need.”
Baker said safety is paramount.
“There are always risks,” he said. “Having a plan, structure in place, order – those are the great mitigators to chaos, disruption or interference. ... Safety is the No. 1 priority.”
Safety is part of each step in using the range, Wegman said. “We do not try to minimize incidents,” he said. “We try to eliminate them. You can’t do that in football; they can only minimize.”
The rifles have long, bright-orange plastic pieces threaded through them called clear barrel indicators, or CBIs, which prevent a rifle from firing unless the CBI is removed.
The rifles stay in cases during transport from the armory to the range, where a safety officer supervises removal and use of the rifles. A safety briefing is held before each trip to the range, Wegman said.
“All of our students are empowered to say ‘Stop’ if they see a violation, and everyone freezes,” he said. “We don’t call them ‘accidental discharges.’ If a weapon is inadvertently discharged, it is negligence, not an accident.”
So far, Wegman said, SSS has not had any safety violations, and he plans to keep it that way.
“I think there’s a misconception that we’re training the Navy’s next marksmen, and we are not,” Wegman said.
Instead, Navy Junior ROTC is a civilian citizen-development program and does not recruit into any branch of the U.S. military, he said.
“We want to make good, responsible citizens,” Wegman said. “We use the backdrop of the Navy to empower. ... We are teaching our students leadership and accountability. Learning to be responsible as a marksman is part of that.”
Abbie Bennett: 919-553-7234, Ext. 101; @AbbieRBennett