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Local Sporting-Clay Event Inspires Attendees to Discover and Reaffirm Views on Firearms

It was a sight so commonplace in his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, that it elicited little more than a yawn: Pickup trucks outfitted with gun racks—complete with shotguns—driven by students… to school.

“That’s because deer season was a big deal and they would go hunting after school,” says H.B. Warren, a resident of Palm City. “I remember a picture of a girl at my high school standing in front of the trophy case with a shotgun—because she’d won some kind of shooting event.”

Times have certainly changed. The national debate about guns seesaws left and right, particularly when tragedies strike, crime spikes or politicians promise some fill-in-the-blank reform. The simple enjoyment of shooting, however, continues to have an active following on the Treasure Coast. That’s largely thanks to the growing number of charity fundraisers where you can get together with friends, get outside, aim high (not too high, lean forward, dominant eye on the target, not barrel), and blast a few clays—all for a good cause.

Yet, more than merely raising money for non-profits and spending shotgun shells, the sporting clay events are inspiring many attendees to discover, recover or reaffirm their fondness for firearms—whether as a pastime or for protection.

“In the charity events, it’s really taken the place of the golf tournaments that were so popular years ago,” says Chappy Young, owner of GCY surveying and a marksman and mainstay at many local charity sporting clay events. “As much as anything, a population (of shooters) is born around these charity events—where many people get to shoot a gun for the first time.”

Idea born with a bang

Treasure Coast Hospice. Visiting Nurse Association of Florida. Vietnam Veterans of America. Treasure Coast Builders Association. Hobe Sound Christian Academy. Florida Oceanographic Society. The list of local non-profits that organize annual clay shooting events as fundraisers goes on, with the local link tracing to one woman—Jennifer Williamson. A lawyer and shareholder at Crary Buchanan who joined the firm fresh out of law school, Williamson took part in her first clay shoot in Lake Placid in 1999.

“I thought it would be a fun client event,” Williamson recalls. “It was a big hit. One of my clients thought, ‘We need to do this as a charity event.’”

It was a brainstorm many non-profit leaders—ever eager to freshen their annual events and draw greater participation—no doubt appreciate.

“I was definitely surprised at the people who do shoot,” says Carolyn Davi, executive director of the Palm City Chamber, which recently held its second annual shoot at South Florida Shooting Club in Palm City. “It was much more profitable than our golf tournaments were. You’re reaching a whole other group that’s out there that you didn’t even know existed.”

A touch of luxury

An image of camouflage gear and a turkey carcass being dragged home to be carved for the evening’s meal might come to mind with the mention of shotguns, but shooting clubs like OK Corral Gun Club make the sport rather elegant. Replacing camo with casual clothing and turkeys with sporting clay, the Okeechobee campus hosts charity and fundraising events for up to 200 attendees at a time with rental guns, ammunition and targets included. After shooting for a cause, guests can migrate to the 7,000-square-foot Crystal Ballroom for an awards ceremony. The room is also used to host corporate meetings to weddings and anniversaries, mixing work, play and shotgun shooting.

The South Florida Shooting Club’s membership has grown from 380 to 600 since last year.

Practice makes comfortable

The newness of the experience makes it all the more appealing to a broad group, says Patrick Davis, director of institutional advancement at Hobe Sound Bible College, which recently held a fundraiser for its academy at Quail Creek Plantation in Okeechobee.

“There are these great outdoor venues within an hours’ drive to Okeechobee, which provide an opportunity to experience the beauty of native Florida in a non-threatening environment that lends itself to relax,” he says. “And our event has become an anticipated annual fundraiser with growing participation by a broad spectrum of people—regardless of age, gender or proficiency in shooting.”

Knowledge is firepower

Shooting proficiency comes only with practice, says Heather Caramma, a customer-service representative at the 647-acre South Florida Shooting Club. And charity events usually encourage newcomers to return for more professional direction and better performance.

“First off, they’re able to get a little bit more comfortable with handling a gun,” she says. “Once people come back after shooting, it’s nothing like they expected at all.”

Negative perspectives on firearms tend to fizzle after safe and enjoyable firsthand interaction with them, Williamson says.

“I think a lot of the frenzy in the news can be inflamed by people who have never even owned or held a gun,” she says. “So they get a distorted image of guns and gun owners. I love it when new people are coming and getting exposed to the sport [of clay shooting] and just loving it. I enjoy seeing people get over their apprehension of handling guns, and then see how they operate and have fun.”

For some, the clay shoots reintroduce them to firearms. The daughter of police officers in New York, Carolyn Davi grew up around guns. But as the chamber’s charity shoot attracted people she never thought liked to shoot, several of them bonded, deciding to further renew their familiarity with firearms.

“I think what happened was when I saw the people shoot, there was a group of us that said, ‘Let’s go take the lesson and get our carry license,’” she says of the roughly three-hour course that enables one to apply with the state for a permit. “Since then, I’ve gotten my concealed weapons permit.”

The South Florida Shooting Club in Palm City is 647 acres.

Profiles rarely fit

Shooting enthusiasts—despite depictions popularized repeatedly in pop culture—don’t pigeonhole as paranoid, paramilitary or doomsday preppers.

“We have NFL football players to landscapers to Supreme Court judges,” Caramma says of the South Florida Shooting Club’s membership, which has grown from 380 to 600 since last year. “We have many female members—even children members, along with their family members.”

The same diversity describes his regulars, says Jamie Redditt, owner of the Stuart Shooting Center—an indoor range.

“When you mention a gun range, everyone thinks there are military personnel dressed in army fatigues or whatever—and it’s not,” Redditt says. “As far as people coming in here and being militant—I don’t see that here. A lot of people, instead of playing golf, they shoot firearms.”

If anything, Young says, the shooters he knows are wholesome, family minded folks.

“We find that the people that we associate with in the shooting environment are just salt of the earth people,” he says, “just fine people.”

The family that shoots together…

It’s also a family activity, Tom Lacayo says. The Port St. Lucie resident runs the Young Guns shooting program at Quail Creek. Starting out five years ago with about 15 to 20 kids, Young Guns now counts more than 120 members—and they compete in regional and national sporting clay contests.

“The sport’s gotten so popular that we have universities offering scholarships to attend their schools and shoot on their teams,” he says.

Young Guns members range in age from 8 to 18. “It becomes a family affair,” Lacayo says. “I had one family—three daughters and one son. The son is a teenager who hunts birds with the father. The daughters and mom had never shot before. Her main concern was the safety of their children. I took them out, spent about 2.5 hours with them. Since then, they have booked another lesson to keep shooting. They were afraid of the guns until they were taught how to use them and to respect them.”

Safety first, last, always The foundation of firearm usage, Lacayo says, is firearm safety. When training new members, “they get one shotgun shell at a time, and it comes from my hands to the gun to make sure the children, myself or anyone around them is not going to get hurt,” he says.

Whether given a child or an adult, Young says, something significant clicks when a trained, certified professional teaches the rules of gun safety, including (among others):

• Treat every firearm as though loaded

• Keep pointed in up or down motion

• Keep finger straight and off trigger until ready to shoot

• Keep firearm unloaded until ready to shoot

• Never point the firearm at anything you don’t intend to shoot
Delivered properly, Young explains, such sobering rules demystify both the demonization and adoration of guns—and any irrational fear is replaced by a healthy, respectful fear.

“There’s shooting etiquette, and shooting etiquette is founded in safety,” Young says. “This is not a game, when we’re teaching the youngsters. There’s the video games kids play. Kids play at the playground and their parents watch them. This is something different. This is a lesson in maturity.”

South Florida Shooting Club members practice their aim.

Repetition works (repetition works)

That lesson extends to adults, too. Brandon Abell’s family owns Lotus Gunworks of South Florida in Jensen Beach. With “a lot of unsettledness” in the world, Abell is seeing about 40 percent of his business composed of first-time firearm purchasers seeking the means of self-defense. His staff is careful to work with new gun owners.

“We’re not just selling someone a gun and letting them leave with it,” he says. “We have them work with one of our instructors and start their transition into learning about guns so they learn proper safety techniques.

“We want them to realize you’re not getting a gun to fire it once and then put it in your pocket,” he adds. “This is something that’s fun to do—but the only way to get good at it is through repetition.”

Defeating fear of unfamiliar

Warren was “probably 4 or 5” when his father first taught him to shoot, followed by lessons at 11 with the Boy Scouts. Although also from Oklahoma, his wife, Allison, didn’t grow up around guns—and she didn’t much care for them.

Shortly after they married, a serial sexual predator was reported on the loose in their Tulsa neighborhood. Separate work schedules and late nights returning home only enhanced their sense of anxiety and vulnerability. Warren bought his wife a .357-caliber handgun. He didn’t stop there. He arranged lessons for her with Riley Gilmore, a celebrated pistol marksman who in 1986 won the Bianchi Cup—the “Holy Grail of handgunning.”

Although authorities later apprehended the predator, the instruction and practice gave Allison a sense of control over the gun—as well as her fear.

“The more people understand firearms, the more it builds a healthier respect—I think it’s good,” Warren says. “The more you can learn about anything you’re interested in, the better.”