Will King, 10, and Melanie Newman, 23, fire handguns at Big Woods Goods in Canton in this video compiled from still photos. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Shooting as a family affair

Standing a few feet behind his 10-year-old son, Ron King stared intently over his shoulder, then stepped forward to touch him between the shoulder blades, correcting his stance.

They might have been on a pitcher’s mound or a driving range. But this Labor Day, father and son were on the indoor gun range at Big Woods Goods in Holly Springs.

With great seriousness and perfect calm, 10-year-old Will let off a string of shots from the .40 caliber Glock pistol, the recoil jerking his slender arms several inches upward with each shot.

Looking on from behind thick layers of bullet-proof glass, 23-year-old Melanie Newman was wowed. “This kid is awesome,” she said. “I wish I had started at that age.”

The accidental killing of an Arizona range instructor by ar 9-year-old girl wielding an Uzi has prompted calls across the nation to restrict the age at which children can legally shoot.

“What kind of idiot country does not prohibit such things by law?” Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts asked in a column that appeared Sunday in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Where gun laws are concerned, the United States of America is — individual dissenting voices duly noted and exempted from the following descriptive — dumber than a bag of bullets.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t have a specific policy on how old a child should be to handle a gun. But it holds that “the most effective measure to prevent suicide, homicide, and unintentional firearm-related injuries to children and adolescents is the absence of guns from homes and communities.”

In Georgia, though, where generations of children have learned to hunt alongside their parents, such attitudes often cut straight against the grain.

At a 2009 forum hosted by Georgiacarry.org, Sean Jerguson, then the Republican state representative for Holly Springs, said he believed so strongly in gun ownership that, when his daughter turned 4, he gave her a “pink .22.” His son was about to turn the same age, he said, and would get a blue one.

In recent years, gun manufacturers, retailers and ranges have increasingly tried to appeal to families and children. Among the hundreds of guns on display in the retail section of Big Woods Goods are models such as the Crickett .22 rifles, which come in pink and blue with the tag line “my first rifle.”

Officially, Big Woods Goods doesn’t let kids shoot until they’re 12 (and anyone younger than 18 must be accompanied by an adult). But co-owner Ramuel Martinez called the policy “very flexible.”

As for what criteria the store uses to determine which kids can shoot, he said it’s a judgment call, based on the child’s prior experience and apparent maturity. A lot depends, he said, on “how they behave at the counter” where customers pay for their time on the range and fill out forms acknowledging the range rules and waiving liability.

“I don’t think we have a bullet-proof method,” Martinez said, laughing at his own inadvertent pun.

“We have kids that make mistakes,” he acknowledged. “But they’re so open to listening and following instructions that we’ve never had any problems.”

There’s no question of kids — or adults, for that matter — shooting any weapon in a fully automatic mode on the company’s range. One of several rules posted adjacent to the 10 shooting lanes says: “No rapid fire — 3 seconds per round.”

When Steve Taylor unloosed a few rounds in quick succession, it was his 10-year-old son, Ashton, who drew his attention to the sign.

Later, when another adult let off a deafening barrage of back-to-back rounds, Martinez immediately stopped him. Ron and Will King, who had packed away their Glock and were browsing through the store’s merchandise, hurried over to see who had been so dumb.

In their family, it was 10-year-old Will who first took up shooting, they explained. He was burned out on baseball and accepted the invitation of a family friend to attend a hunting camp.

“I’ve always loved the whole military concept,” Will said gravely, sounding, like many of the kids at the range that day, old beyond his years.

Despite his interest, they waited a couple of years before buying any guns, and Will isn’t allowed to handle them at home.

“There are very strict rules,” Ron King said. “If it’s touched, it goes away.”

Ashton Taylor is Will’s age, but Monday was his first visit to a gun range — and he didn’t look altogether enthused about it. His face clearly said “yuck” as he gazed at a display of paper targets depicting various unsavory characters who all looked like they were in the final stages of Ebola.

Even his dad seemed vaguely conflicted, but he said he wanted his son to experience the reality of guns, not just the fantasy. “I want him to see it, not just on TV or video games, where it’s cool,” Steve Taylor said. “No, it’s dangerous.”

As for what happened in Arizona, Taylor said, “There is no way I would let a kid that age handle a fully automatic weapon.”

A few years ago, Martinez was just like Ashton. He’s from Mexico, where the culture around guns is very unlike the United States. When his friends and neighbors Bill and Teresa Miller invited him to join them in opening a firearms business, he had never shot a gun.

As for his four kids, one daughter worked at the store for a couple of years after she turned 16, but none of them are smitten with guns.

“My kids come once in a while, but they’re not into it,” he said.

Gabrielle, who is 10, looked pretty into it. She started out on Big Woods Goods’ archery range, which is next to the gun range, she said. That got her interested in shooting.

(Gabrielle’s dad, Adam, asked that their last name not be published. “I haven’t really talked to her mother about it,” the divorced father explained, hastening to add that they’re generally agreed that it’s desirable for Gabrielle to learn to protect herself.)

“It’s good for safety purposes,” Gabrielle said, displaying a breezy confidence that belied her years.

And what do her girlfriends think of it?

Her father interrupted before she could answer. “I won’t let her tell anyone. This is between us. This is for her to learn.”

It was only the fifth-grader’s second time on the shooting range, but you wouldn’t necessarily have guessed that from watching her.

Her red-nailed fingers trembled with the effort of inserting the bullets into the magazine, but once she was in the lane, she coolly taped the paper target to the cardboard backing and programmed the panel that sent it zipping away from her to the distance she had specified.

Looking on, Martinez said, “I find it fascinating. As a father, it’s hard to connect with girls.”

And Gabrielle clearly relished the time with her dad.

“I’m not really a normal girl. I don’t really like shopping,” she said later, lounging against a display case filled with firearms. “We watch shows where they make guns and stuff. You should see us playing with swords in the living room.”

Back on the range, first-timer Ashton Taylor was displaying all the signs of adolescent boredom. Emerging from the ante-chamber that led to the range, he yanked the protective ear muffs off his head and announced, “It hurts my ears. I’m tired of guns.”

Later, as he and his father were leaving, Steve Taylor said they’d be back. “I don’t want him to be scared of them,” he said.

Even so, the father said, “I still don’t know how I feel about it all.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

X