Children in 48 other states can learn riflery and firearm safety through their local 4-H club.
But the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which oversees the 4-H program in this state, has rejected a proposal to teach shooting sports to children here, angering backers who have accused the university of bias against gun owners and their families.
“We teach our kids about sex education, drugs, and alcohol. We teach them to drive. Why are we not teaching them safe firearm skills?” said Mandy Deveno, a part-time firearms instructor and 4-H volunteer from Bellingham who had worked for nearly two years to bring a 4-H shooting sports program to Massachusetts. Rhode Island is the only other state that does not offer such a program.
UMass officials defended their decision last month to rebuff the firearms program, which was to be launched with $180,000 in funding over three years from the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.
“Rather than focus limited resources on shooting sports only, the university is actively exploring development of a more broadly based program that includes instruction in hunting, fishing and conservation as part of our youth development activities,” said Ed Blaguszewski, a university spokesman. “The hunting aspect of the program would include the basics of gun safety and the shooting sports.”
Conrad Arnold, the national 4-H Shooting Sports coordinator, said 450,000 children ages 8 to 18 participate in the program nationwide. In addition to learning to fire rifles and pistols, they are taught about archery, hunting, and wildlife, he said.
While “you get a little hitch here and there,” he said he was not aware of the program generating a backlash in any other state.
“We treat this as any of our other 4-H projects — be it livestock, nutrition, computers, or woodworking,” Conrad said. “The project is merely a way to develop the young person” and teach responsibility, respect, and goal-setting.
The 4-H clubs, which were founded in 1902, are run by more than 100 public universities across the nation.
Originally designed to teach children skills associated with rural life, 4-H currently offers a range of activities, from summer camps focused on animal science to filmmaking and photography.
Deveno, who grew up deer hunting and trap shooting in Wisconsin, said that when her 10-year-old son expressed an interest in learning to shoot, she was surprised that riflery was not offered at 4-H clubs in Massachusetts.
“I just assumed it was nationwide,” she said.
She was told that launching the program would require funding and staffing.
She urged state wildlife officials to get involved, and they agreed to devote $180,000 over three years to pay for a program coordinator, as well as training and materials.
But UMass rejected the proposal about three weeks ago.
“It’s just a shame,” said Deveno, who had hoped to apply for the program coordinator position. “We had all the pieces that needed to be there.”
Joseph S. Larson, an emeritus professor at UMass who is chairman of the Massachusetts Fisheries and Wildlife board, said he was surprised by the decision.
Larson, who is 83, recalled that, when he was a boy, shooting sports were more common and less controversial.
He fondly recalled firing a .22-caliber rifle as a member of the riflery team at Malden High School, which met for target practice in the high school attic.
And when he was an undergraduate at UMass in the 1950s, his roommate was on the intercollegiate riflery team, which no longer exists.
“I’m disappointed because the 4-H program is a well-respected program in the nation and their approach, to us, was welcome,” Larson said.
The Gun Owners’ Action League, the state affiliate of the National Rifle Association, strongly condemned the university’s decision.
“This move by UMass makes absolutely no sense,” said Jim Wallace, the league’s executive director. “The only reason to avoid implementing this program is because UMass has a social bias against gun-owning families and their children.”
Laurie G. Flanagan, executive director of the Massachusetts 4-H Foundation, the organization’s private fund-raising arm, said she was disappointed. Firearms instruction, she said, would have been a good way to get hard-to-reach teenagers excited about 4-H clubs.
“We were very anxious to get this program up and running,” she said. “And knowing that we were one of only two states that didn’t have this program, it seemed like something that would be an easy decision.”