May 29, 2014 -- 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.
When she isn’t training, Gia’s guns are strictly off-limits and her father keeps them locked up, even though Adolfo said he believes Gia would never disobey him.
“I would bet my life that she would never touch a gun that she wasn’t supposed to or try to try guns," he said. "I don’t care how old she would be. I bet my life on it.”
But critics argue that’s a risky bet for most parents because training and trust may not be enough to prevent accidents.
Dr. Denise Dowd of Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City helps write policy for the American Academy of Pediatrics. She says kids’ brains simply aren’t mature enough to be trusted around firearms. They lack impulse control and their critical thinking skills are still developing, she said.
“Kids are impulsive, and you can't teach that out of a kid,” Dowd said. “You can teach them, they can ‘parrot’ back, they can show you how safe they are, they can load it, they can clean it. But they should not be in independent control of that weapon because they're impulsive because they're children.”
At her hospital alone, Dowd said there are 30 to 50 cases annually of gun-related kid tragedies that, she said, are entirely preventable.
“No child exercises good judgment. Any parent knows that,” she said. “It doesn't take a medical degree to be able to, you know, tell anybody that is that you don't trust your kids 100 percent of the time, especially when it comes to something that is so high risk, right?”
One National Institute of Health study found that nearly half, 43 percent, of homes with children and firearms reporting having at least one unlocked firearm, and firearm deaths of children are at least 10 times higher in the United States and in any other industrialized country, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Jodi Sandoval keeps a memorial of her son Noah in her living room at her home in Columbus, Ohio. Noah was 14 years old when he and his best friend Levi were playing at Levi’s grandparents’ house and they found a gun hidden behind the television.
“He removed the clip, and he pointed it at Noah, and he fired a shot,” Sandoval said. “He didn't realize there was a bullet in the chamber.”
Levi didn’t know he had killed his friend until police told him during their interrogation. He pleaded guilty to reckless homicide and was sentenced to one year probation.
Sandoval says she doesn’t blame Levi for her son’s death. During Levi’s trial, she even testified on his behalf, asking the judge to lower his sentence.
“And while Levi made a horrible, terrible mistake, it wasn't an accident that a gun was left out where it could've been stored and locked away,” Sandoval said. “My son didn't have to die the way he died. He had a future. He was so ambitious. He had a future ahead of him. He had love ahead of him.”
Even though a study published in the journal Pediatrics showed states that enacted safe storage laws saw a decline in accidental firearm deaths among children, only 14 states have safe storage laws. Ohio is not one of them.
The NRA, which declined our multiple requests for an interview, has repeatedly opposed such laws, saying the laws infringe on gun owners’ rights to effectively protect their homes.
However, the organization does recommend that guns should be stored securely until ready for use, making sure that they are not accessible to children.
For the sharpshooters in Texas, gun safety is top priority for the Sure Shots, but it’s clear that these tween shooters and their parents believe deeply in the right to bear arms at any age. What remains unclear is the impact this next generation of gun enthusiasts will have on the future of the gun industry.