It was what many would call a very unusual playdate: A group of young girls, many of whom were still losing baby teeth, gathered at range outside of Austin, Texas, put on protective glasses and earmuffs, then were handed a gun to load and told to take aim and fire.
“When I shoot I think it’s so much more fun than playing with anything else that’s in my room,” said 7-year-old Vanessa Aguilar.
Vanessa and the other pint-sized shooters, who ranged in age from 6 to 11, were attending a Little Girls Youth Training program, a sort of gun school for kids. The training program, which was independently sponsored, is part of a growing trend of gun organization events promoting shooting sports for kids.
The gun industry is looking for young enthusiasts like Vanessa to ensure growth in the future.
The National Rifle Association and other gun industry-sponsored organizations pour tens of millions of dollars into youth shooting programs nationwide. Nearly four million youths attended a training program that followed the NRA’s guidelines in 2012, up two million from 2008, the NRA said.
But critics question whether children, even under adult supervision, can be trusted with potentially lethal force.
Nikki Jones, who leads the women’s-only shooting league Austin Sure Shots, ran the youth training event. Jones said she learned how to shoot as a child and is convinced that, with the right training, children can safely wield a firearm.
“When you teach kids that young, you take the mystery out of the gun, and it's a really valid thing to do,” Jones said. “We don't teach them to shoot around barricades. We don't teach them to clear rooms. We don't teach them what happens in a carjacking.”
Before the guns even came out, Jones started the course by teaching the kids the rules and fundamentals of shooting.
“’Always treat every gun like it is loaded,’” Vanessa recited, “[and] ‘don't point your gun at anything that you’re not going to kill or destroy.’”
It’s a critical lesson because 7,391 American kids and teens under age 20 were hospitalized from firearm injuries in 2009, according to a Yale School of Medicine study. That means, on average, a child or teen is shot almost every hour.
Vanessa’s mother, Lea Edmonds, keeps several guns locked up at home. She believes having her daughter attend gun training courses will actually make Vanessa safer.
“She has seen the weapons in our gun safe and she was asking questions. That for us was an important time to utilize that, to educate her,” she said.
The star of the event is 9-year-old Gia Rocco. A promising sharpshooter, Gia has four years of training under her ammunition belt. She is in constant training, has her own arsenal of guns at home, and is already competing at professional matches against adults. Gia even has a Facebook fan page and her own industry sponsors.
The gun business is booming -- the NRA says there are as many as 310 million privately owned guns in the United States -- with sales spiking even after the Newtown massacre. But analysts say that’s because existing gun owners are stockpiling. National surveys indicate gun ownership is decreasing.
Young shooters like Gia represent a demographic that the $30 billion gun industry considers vital to the future of gun sports.
Her father Adolfo Rocco hopes sharp shooting will someday lead to a college scholarship for his daughter, and even Olympic gold.