Hunting and shooting sports can be fun, relaxing pastimes, but wielding the guns they use is deadly serious, several Prior Lake volunteer firearm safety instructors told a handful of residents in recent weeks.
An old friend shooting himself while cleaning a loaded gun, a child accidentally killed by a found weapon — the costs of mishandling firearms are steep and immediate, the group said.
"I care about having people safe with a firearm," said Dan Borchardt Jr., who helps in safety courses each spring and fall with other members of the Prior Lake Sportsmen's Club and Veterans of Foreign Wars post. "We want them not to shoot themselves or their friends or, maybe, you."
The spring course wrapped up Saturday, April 27, capping a series of earlier classroom sessions with an outdoor field day for students to demonstrate their gun-use and hunting skills.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources oversees the classes throughout the state, which cost $15 and are required for many Minnesota hunting licenses, shooting ranges and other activities. Borchardt said he, his brother and Borchardt's seven children all completed it at some point.
More than 10 hours of class time beginning in February covered such topics as how to hold a rifle, handling ammo, hunting ethically, avoiding outdoor dangers and safely handing off or accepting a gun from someone else.
The latter is a multi-step process, the instructors said, and must include asking and visually confirming whether the weapon has its safety on and is unloaded.
"I don't care who it is," Borchardt told the group of about a dozen people, including some students' parents, during March 4 class. "If you do this the rest of your life, you can't go wrong."
Those around guns should always treat them as if loaded even when they aren't, according to several firearm commandments recited before each session.
Other commands included keeping fingers off of triggers, identifying the target and anything past it, and always, always keeping guns pointed in safe directions. Borchardt said pointing a barrel at someone during the field day would result in instant failure.
"Muzzle control, that's the biggest thing we get here," said Bob Schmokel, an Army veteran who's helped teach the courses for 40 years. "Never fool around with a firearm."
Such classes began in Minnesota more than half a century ago, when hunting was more dangerous than today, according to the Department of Natural Resources.
The department counted more than 100 annual hunting accidents throughout the 1960s, typically leading to between 10 and 20 deaths each year. In 2018, it recorded 13 accidents and three deaths, two of which stemmed from failing to ID the target or what was behind it as the safety courses teach.
Roughly 16,000 people were treated for unintentional firearm injuries in emergency rooms around the country in 2014, which didn't have Minnesota-specific data. Deaths from those injuries that year numbered 461 nationwide, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Prior Lake's course ended in April with a written test and the field day just south of the city. Two groups of about four students shot at targets, climbed a dear stand and worked through several other stations.
Samantha Kiesner, 13, said she wants to do trapshooting and hunt with her uncle. The class definitely burned muzzle control into her mind, she said; her favorite part was shooting the guns.
Michelle Ludowese, one of the few adult students, said she was completely new to gun-handling but signed up because she married into a hunting family and wants to join her sons for a pheasant-hunting trip. She was thrilled during field day to hit a bulls-eye a few times with a rifle.
"I'm not as timid or afraid of being around firearms," Ludowese said afterward, adding she appreciated the emphasis on safety first. "Once you have a greater understanding of what you're doing, you don't take things for granted."
The event included a special award presentation for Schmokel from Conservation Officer James Fogarty with the Department of Natural Resources recognizing his many years volunteering for the safety courses.
"We couldn't do this without our volunteers," Fogarty said.
Classes are scheduled through October around Minnesota, including in Dakota and Hennepin counties, according to the department's website. Borchardt said the local fall session should come sometime in early fall.