Be Prepared

How the Boy Scouts get kids started early on gun safety
The Boy Scouts of America's rifle shooting merit badge. (James Farrell)

When Joe Usatch was a Boy Scout, he didn’t want to shoot. His parents had strong anti-gun views and raised him the same way. When Usatch’s troop from Merrick, New York went to the rifle range at Camp Rotary near Albany, he didn’t participate.

“My parents always shied me away from that,” said Usatch, 33, now a teacher in Brooklyn. “I wasn’t super interested.”

But as he watched his peers from a distance and sat in on classes about gun safety and history, Usatch became fascinated with the sport. Frank Bonamo, the Scoutmaster and a proponent of the Boy Scouts’ shooting program, took the boys twice a year to a Long Island rifle range to give them experience shooting outside of camp. He even invited parents who were uneasy about the concept to participate. “Why don’t you just come on down, see if you like it, see if you’re comfortable with it?” he would tell them. “That changed a lot of perceptions,” he said. While Usatch’s parents never accepted Bonamo’s invitation, Usatch said they grew to trust Bonamo and the troop’s adult leaders, many of whom were involved in law enforcement. So they reluctantly permitted their son to try shooting. Usatch fired his first .22 caliber rifle from the Long Island range when he was 16. Most of his friends started at 13.

In New York and Long Island, where gun laws are strict, the Boy Scouts provide many kids with their first and often only experiences with firearms, and these experiences can leave lasting impressions on scouts’ perceptions of guns, just like they did for Usatch.

“When people are practicing gun safety and they’re using the weapon for recreational usage in a safe environment, I think that guns can play a positive role in our society,” Usatch said. “The scouts introduced me to that.” Usatch now owns a shotgun and shoots clay pigeons once or twice a year.

Most kids who shoot at New York camps, like Usatch once did, usually come in without previous exposure to guns, mostly because the gun culture of New York is more restrictive than in other parts of the country, according to Dakota Oher, a former scout and a district executive for the Theodore Roosevelt Council, the Nassau County division of scouts. Oher, who is also a program director at Onteora, an upstate summer camp that takes in scouts from all over New York State, says New York kids—both in the city and from Long Island—often receive their first gun experiences at camp. But back in Virginia, where Oher grew up, that is not the case. “Most kids have already interacted with guns,” he said.

Unlike kids in other states where shooting is a way of life, New York kids interested in shooting sports have few opportunities to shoot outside of the Boy Scouts, according to Richard Siena, a rifle shooting merit badge counselor for Long Island scouts. When Siena was younger, he participated in the Eastern Military Academy’s rifle team and competed against other Nassau County schools. “I would bring my rifle to school, put it in the locker and walk down and shoot on the range after class,” he said. “Today, if you bring a rifle to school, they arrest you.”

The Eastern Military Academy has since shut down. While some Nassau County school rifle teams remain, like the Valley Stream Central District Team, most have vanished or switched from .22 caliber to air rifles. Additionally, there is now only one public shooting range in all of Nassau County. Boy Scout camps, like Onteora or Schiff Scout Reservation in Suffolk County, offer ranges where scouts can come and learn to shoot in a controlled environment.

The Boy Scouts make sure to regulate the experience with strict rules and heavy supervision. For instance, the Boy Scout National Shooting Sports Manual prohibits scouts from pointing any weapon, real or fake, at anything living or resembling a human being. This means that scouts can only shoot water guns, laser guns or paintball guns at targets—never at each other. On the range, Oher says, scouts also must receive safety training before shooting.

“[At] every single camp, the first day, you don’t shoot the first day,” he said. “Safety is above all else a priority.”

And this is true in range supervision as well. On rifle ranges, scouts shoot relatively weak .22 caliber rifles at stationary targets. The Shooting Sports Manual stipulates that, for every eight participants on a rifle range, there must be at least one NRA certified range safety officer who supervises firing and a separate NRA certified rifle instructor to teach safety and proper use. Shotguns, on the other hand, are more powerful than rifles and have a stronger recoil. Scouts aim these guns at clay targets that are thrown in the air instead of at stationary targets. The style of shooting and the more dangerous gun means more supervision—on shotgun ranges, there must be one safety officer for every six kids, and one instructor for each shooter.

Former scout Quentin Lettieri, who became an Eagle Scout for Troop 690 in Seaford back in 2012, remembers that scouts were not allowed on the firing range until all shooting stopped and a range safety officer granted permission. All shooters are given ear and eye protection, lined up and given ammo that can only be loaded upon an officer’s command. Until then, all scouts had to keep their safety on and their finger off the trigger. The gun had to always be pointed downrange, even if it was unloaded. “If anybody at any time does not have their gun pointed down range, the entire process stops,” Lettieri said. The same rules still apply. Peter Rowan, a Boy Scout in Wantagh’s Troop 656, said that scouts need to be granted permission before taking almost any action on the range, including entering, loading and firing. If anyone doesn’t follow protocol, Rowan says, they are sometimes given a warning, but most likely they are immediately kicked off the range. “The discipline comes right away,” he said.

The Boy Scouts’ guidelines for shooting range protocol comes from the NRA. “We believe this experience provides the best, safest possible introduction to shooting for Scouts,” said Jason Brown, an NRA spokesman, in a statement. At least in New York, the numbers back him up. The Greater New York Councils, the collection of scout troops in the five boroughs of New York City, have never had a shooting sports-related accident in its history, according to spokesman George Shea. In Nassau County’s Theodore Roosevelt Council, ranges have been incident free for at least five years, according to Matthew Conlon, program and camping services director. “I can say with strict confidence that nothing has happened before that,” Conlon added.

Meanwhile, current and former scouts say their scouting experiences have shaped their perceptions of guns. Rowan, who is 15, said that that the shooting sports program has taught him and his peers how to be safe around guns. “Gun safety in general, is like, a major takeaway from it,” he said. “Ask anyone who’s done it.” Former scout Lettieri adds that learning about guns can open new perspectives. “It’s possible for people to have these things and not cause problems,” he said. “Putting a respect of guns into your mind does impact how you think about them later.”

“Even though these kids can’t own a gun, the fact that they are entrusted with the use of this is kind of a rite of passage in itself,” said Glenn Kearney, an auxiliary police officer in Nassau County and a former rifle shooting merit badge counselor.

While the demystification of guns is a common theme in scouts’ recollections of shooting, not every scout acts on those lessons in the same way. Glen Ziolo, a former Boy Scout from Wantagh’s Troop 656, used to go shooting every year at summer camp. Years later, Ziolo’s wife, who was raised in a house with guns, wanted to purchase a gun for their home in Florida. Ziolo pushed back, and they ultimately compromised, deciding that she would keep a gun in her car but not in the house. Ziolo says that his experience at camp shaped his perspective. He remembers taking the shotgun shooting merit badge and feeling the gun’s painful recoil against his shoulder. It made him understand the power of firearms. “The safest thing is just not to have one,” he said. “I didn’t see, really, the benefit of having one in the house.”

Scout leader Bonamo, who still keeps in touch with Usatch, says he’s still a big proponent of the Boy Scouts’ shooting sports program, but he understands why people are fearful of guns. “They only see what they see in the media, which is the worst of the worst,” he said. But that’s exactly why he appreciates the Boy Scouts’ program—it provides an opportunity for kids to gain the experiences that can help them make educated decisions about how guns fit into their lives. “There are people who are drawn to it and people who aren’t,” he said. “Decisions shouldn’t be made off of fears.”

Usatch, of course, ended up loving shooting so much as a scout that he eventually became a gun owner, despite his own and his family’s opinions of guns’ dangers. “I think that being exposed to [guns] and touching guns as children gave us an opportunity to get rid of that wonder that exists,” Usatch said. “There was no, ‘Stephen’s dad’s a cop, let’s go find his gun!’ We knew not to touch it.”


James Farrell