Guns, Not Politics: Shooting Sports Look To High Schools For Growth
Ally Fulp and Levi Dotson live down the street from each other, and compete all the time. They’re in Levi’s yard, shooting at the clay targets Fulp’s dad sends whipping through the air.
The sound of gunfire isn’t uncommon here. The two high schoolers have been target shooting for years.
They’re both figuring out where they want to go to college. Dotson could go to one of the best marine biology schools in the country with his grades. But he and Fulp have another focus beyond academics: a school with a trap shooting team.
“One of the colleges I've been looking at recently actually has a competitive shotgun team which I thought would be really cool,” Dotson says.
Fulp and Dotson are part of a high school-sanctioned clay target team. School-backed teams are a growing trend in Indiana and across the country. The Indiana High School Clay Target League started three years ago with one team – this year there are 15.
Dotson and Fulp’s coach for the Lapel High School trap team John Beeman says growth is how shooting sports will survive, and move into unfamiliar territory.
“We want to expand that so it doesn’t go away, so like the club we’re in here now, you got a lot of senior members here,” he says.
And to do it, he and others like him are recruiting more kids in high schools. Beeman says, to create a ripple effect.
“So what I’m hoping happens is that this little nucleus of kids goes out and multiplies a little bit with their friends, and then that someone in that school takes the initiative, a parent or a coach a teacher to say hey we want a league here in this school.”
At practice, shooters take turns in different positions. When it’s their turn to fire, they yell “pull,” and a machine in the ground flings a clay target – also called a bird – across the sky. The shooter scores if they hit and break the target while it’s flying through the air. And that’s just the basic version.
Brad Mendenhall directs the state’s scholastic clay target program. He says the effort to draw in more kids is nationwide – and it’s working.
“It’s the fastest growing sport in America as we understand it in the high school systems,” he says.
Some people are hesitant about that growth. A league official says at least one school in Indiana backed out of starting a team after the Noblesville middle school shooting last spring.
But safety drives how coaches and officials talk about the sport. Mendenhall says for every young shooter, safety is the first – and a constant – conversation, especially at national events with crowds of kids, like the one in Marengo, Ohio, last year.
“Ultimately it’s responsibility. I mean they’re very responsible kids. Last year we fired 2.1 million rounds in Marengo, Ohio, without one incident,” he says.
Millions of one-time-use rounds are expensive, and the gun business makes money from every fired shot and shattered clay target. The national USA Clay Target League highlights the potential spending power of the students it reaches, and describes its target audience as “young shooting sport enthusiasts ready to purchase.”
But before trap shooting kids become spenders, parents, nonprofits and other firearm-focused groups often help pay the bills. Mendenhall says the nonprofit arm of the NRA, Friends of NRA, fundraised more than $1 million in Indiana last year for shooting sports.
Support from the NRA nonprofit causes tension too, but Beeman says it’s not about politics, and he’s happy to show people what it does for kids on his team.
“Come out and shoot with us. Come to the club, come see the kids, interact with them and then you tell me if this is a worthwhile endeavor or not,” he says.
For one of the state’s top sharpshooters Ally Fulp, growing the sport is worth it – especially if it means recruiting more girls for some friendly competition.
“The guys definitely underestimate the girls, definitely,” she says. “I hope that they remember that we can still beat them. We can beat them hard.”
With her sights set on the Junior Olympics, she plans to.