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I am going to step away from talking about legal issues in this article and reach out to parents with children (both boys and girls) that are approaching an age at which the parents think it is appropriate to start hunting.
I speak from personal experience, based on my experience with my own son and many of my close friends’ sons who are of a similar age. There is no definitive answer as to when a child should begin hunting or be exposed to firearms. There is a need, however, to prepare children for shooting and hunting.
I remember how, many years ago, a firearm instructor demonstrated to one of his shooting classes how his three-year-old son could cock is Government Model .45. His message was simple: if a child can cock a firearm at that age, he can also have an accident with it at that age. It is therefore imperative to teach our children respect for and an understanding of firearms from an extremely young age. I took this lesson to heart.
This might appal many people who do not understand firearms, but I remember vividly reading bedtime stories to my son when he was between three and four years old. It was always prefaced with a discussion about firearms and a touch-and-feel session with one of my handguns. I started teaching him from that age about the basic principles of firearm safety. He was taught not to touch a firearm without an adult present and if he sees a firearm, to turn around and go find an adult for assistance. He was never given a toy handgun: he always had real ones to play with.
As he progressed, I taught him more advanced aspects of firearm safety to the point where I am satisfied today that he is probably a safer shooter than me and certainly more accurate in all disciplines.
The fact that my son is a better long-range and clay target shooter than me is, in my opinion, a testimonial to the fact that the appropriate exposure to firearms has taught him all the skills and discipline needed to shoot safely. He outshot me in long-range shooting while enduring a heart condition that made his heart beat at 120 beats per minute. Try regulating your breathing and trigger control after running for a few minutes and you will appreciate the concentration required.
How does this relate to hunting? I was keen (my wife would have said “desperate”) to get my son to hunt with me and I wanted him to grow up and love hunting and shooting as much as I do. He went on a number of hunts with me where he was an “observer hunter”. At the age of five it is very difficult to keep a child still while conducting a voorsit hunt and it can be quite distracting, but I did so and I have wonderful memories of that today. I started my son at the age of six years, shooting a .22 handgun and .22 rifle.
I cannot recall if it was during his sixth or seventh year when he shot his first springbuck, using a .223 Remington rifle. I had started him shooting a rifle some months before and had set strict parameters. He was not to shoot further than 50 m, because that was the distance that he could hit a disposable paper plate with regularity. He shot his first springbuck successfully on our first hunt and you will see from the accompanying photograph that we are still hunting on the same farm 15 years later. He owns his own rifles now in much bigger calibres.
I do, however, think that I might have made my son shoot a little early in his life. He is a committed hunter and sport shooter and is respectful of animals and their environment and the ethics surrounding hunting. But I believe that he did not grow up in your average hunting household. My household and professional life revolves around firearms. Normal households should ask what the right time is for the average firearm-owning household to allow a child to start shooting and hunting.
I have read of fathers making their children wait until they are in their teens before they can hunt or use firearms. However, I have seen children as young as eight or nine do well in clay target shooting with 12-gauge shotguns. One of my close friends even cut down the shotgun stock on his Beretta to fit his son and it really worked for his son. Young children have amazing hand-eye coordination and eyesight that can make them excellent shooters and hunters.
I believe passionately that over and above the need to educate our children about the safe use of firearms, we need to let them shoot firearms. Actual shooting removes any ambiguity or mystique about how firearms work and what they can do. Once a child can safely use a firearm and shoot it accurately, they should be allowed to hunt. In addition to this, children should be exposed to the hunting of animals and the ethics of hunting in a manner that allows them to understand why it is necessary and what the consequences are, before they hunt themselves.
So for the parents out there who are in the process of deciding whether to take their children hunting, first teach them how to use firearms safely and responsibly, then take them on a hunt where they do not shoot an animal but go through the entire process, including processing the carcass. If they have successfully done so, then I wish you good hunting for 2020!
A final caveat is that we should never force our children to hunt or shoot. Their natural curiosity will dictate what happens, because if you force a child to shoot or hunt, you risk alienating him or her.