Rekha Basu 

At first glance, it might seem harmless for a school district to offer gun safety training for hunters — assuming they’re responsible enough to handle guns and want to hunt. But Iowa’s Clarksville and North Butler school districts, about 125 miles north of Des Moines, plan to make gun handling and firing required learning for seventh- and eighth-graders in North Butler, and eighth-graders in Clarksville. And that’s even if they have no interest in hunting.

We’re talking here about 13- and 14 year-olds.

The weeklong training will be a required part of the school’s physical education curriculum, but parents can opt their children out.

Granted, the kids will be training with disabled weapons and nonfunctioning ammunition. But what’s the impetus for bringing them into the world of weapons when they’re still carefree and testing the boundaries and following the crowds? Why make the course mandatory for the younger kids, but available on a voluntary basis to high school students on evenings between winter and spring sports seasons?

When you examine the varying reasons offered by Superintendent Joel Foster, who oversees both school systems, it seems the real motivation is getting kids interested in guns from an early age. He framed it as a “hunters safety course” in a district blog post this month, but also wrote that he doesn’t expect all the students to hunt. He further wrote that it was important for students to “learn to respect and how to manage and control firearms,” offering as an example, “a little one they maybe babysitting finds a weapon and brings it to them.”

The superintendent added he hopes the course will prepare students to react in the event of an active shooter situation — if other school safety measures such as cameras and locks aren’t enough.

That’s putting a lot of responsibility on a young teen with one week’s worth of training.

The North Butler Board of Education “believes that the No. 1 priority of our school is to ensure the safety of our students and staff,” Foster wrote.

Then do they also teach babysitting and first aid in middle school?

Foster may sincerely believe this will protect kids. But the approach spreads needless fears while enmeshing young people in an already too prevalent gun culture. 

Foster wrote: “We believe that education in all situations should be a goal.”

Even so, wouldn’t safety from dangerous weapons more appropriately be part of a health and safety curriculum? When students are taught the dangers of drunk driving or safe sex, for example, the teachers don’t have them drink or have sex to learn to do it safely. Rather, students should learn the risks and benefits of recreational activities through honest dialogue. The sole purpose of guns is their lethal abilities.

A better way to reduce fears of other people’s weapons would be to work at changing our culture from a gun-obsessed one to one that rejects lethal weapons.

In 2015, 1,458 10- to 17-year-olds died of firearm-related deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Nearly 40 percent (566) of those were from suicide. Also, 6,900 children under age 18 suffered nonfatal gun injuries requiring emergency-room treatment.

Seventh- and eighth-grade kids are still impulsive and experimenting. They don’t need to be thrust into our gun-saturated environment in school. Let’s teach them languages, math, science and the lessons of history, and fortify them with resiliency training. Let’s focus on building their conflict-resolution skills instead of putting lethal weapons in their hands.

Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register.

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