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Rod Watson: Bill to ban high school rifle teams just makes NRA’s case

Rod Watson

When 17-year-old Bailey Begovich puts on the stiff canvas jacket and pants that help stabilize muscles and minimize movement, she knows that such physical control is only part of the challenge when she aims her air rifle.

"It’s a lot more mental than other sports," said the Kenmore East High School senior. "You really have to be in the right mind state to perform well."

Those are skills that, once learned, carry over into other parts of life.

But the chance to hone them could be in jeopardy thanks to an asinine bill from a downstate Assembly member who wants to ban air rifle  and archery as school sports on the ridiculous assumption that shooting on a school team creates a "gun culture."

It is anti-gun zealots like this who make life so easy for the National Rifle Association. Every time you’re tempted to think the NRA is crying wolf to gin up support when it suggests "they" want to take away everyone’s guns, along comes more proof that the organization might be right.

Ordinarily, this measure from Democratic Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal might be considered a classic "one-house bill" doomed to go no further. But with the very real possibility of Democrats also taking over the State Senate – depending on the whims of one mercurial senator – and Gov. Andrew Cuomo ever eager to ban any gun he can find, this threat to shooting sports is all too real.

It is one more example of Democrats stretching the definition of "sensible" gun control until it has no meaning at all, short of simply getting rid of all firearms.

I used to consider the NRA’s warnings like the cover of Superman comic books, which invariably indicated the superhero was dead. But somehow, once you finished the edition, he was very much alive and you knew you had been duped just to get your money. The NRA often operates the same way: No matter which political party is in control, it’s the most perilous time in history for gun rights, so send money now.

But who can dismiss the NRA’s warnings after the SAFE Act, New York’s handgun recertification fiasco, and now this?

"Why she’s going after this, I don’t know," said Paul Borkowski, who began coaching rifle in the Alden Central School District in 1971 and who just ended his tenure as chairman of the sport for Section VI in Western New York.

The eight rifle teams in Section VI each have 15 to 20 or more shooters, and about half are girls, he said. It’s a sport in which size and speed don’t matter, and one that – unlike football or basketball – you can practice a lifetime.

"It’s an Olympic sport," he added, explaining that shooting teaches discipline, concentration, body control and how to handle pressure.

But beyond those skills, which many sports teach, shooting also inculcates something else that’s vitally important: A respect for guns and what they can do, and an appreciation for firearms safety -- an appreciation that can prevent the kind of misuse, accidental or otherwise, that leads to tragedy.

Borkowski can’t recall any such tragedies involving kids on school rifle teams.

Nevertheless, Rosenthal has cited the fact that Nikolas Cruz, who killed 17 in Parkland, Fla., had participated in a school rifle program as justification for her ban.

But that makes about as much sense as getting rid of driver training classes because a madman drove a van onto sidewalks in Toronto a few weeks ago, killing 10. Or banning chemistry because those classes might have helped Pendleton’s Timothy McVeigh concoct the truck bomb that killed 168 people in Oklahoma City.

The rationale is ludicrous, and even the kids know it.

"You really have to rely on yourself and focus," said 18-year-old Holly Kaiser, another Kenmore East senior, before taking aim from 10 meters at a target whose bullseye is the size of a pencil point.

"Positive affirmation" also helps, said senior Chris Donn, 18. Like Holly, he was part of the Kenmore team that won the state championship last year.

Over the years, Borkowski has noticed that the smarter kids do well in rifle because they analyze their mistakes and learn to correct them. That’s borne out at Kenmore East, where the rifle team averages a 97.71 academically, said coach Kristina Brown, herself a two-time state champion before graduating and being recruited to West Point.

"You’re really competing against yourself; you can always improve," Brown said.

Why anyone would want to deny kids this opportunity to compete and learn about themselves – as well as about the safe handling and storage of firearms, so that they know what responsible gun ownership means – is beyond me.

Gun culture?

I’m more worried about a political culture that chases cheap headlines by victimizing law-abiding shooters. But I guess that’s to be expected because bills like Rosenthal’s are so much easier to write than doing something to actually prevent crime.

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