What part of your classroom learning do you remember from decades ago?
Neither do I.
But even 30 years after taking my gun safety training course in the basement of North Mankato Town Hall, I can say I’ve kept quite a bit of it.
Those weeknight sessions from a long time ago were on my mind recently, as my daughter worked through the course. I couldn’t help but wonder what was the same and what was not.
The basics are the same, I’m sure, as are guns, for the most part, anyway.
One obvious difference, however, is that she learned it all online, including the range part – a “virtual field day”.
I will stop before saying that I was concerned about the quality of his teaching. I had reservations; after all, some of my most memorable lessons have come from hands-on opportunities and the delivery of the instructors.
Like the night they brought real guns for the demonstration. One of them “forgot” to check if the gun was unloaded.
I will always remember the shock value that came with a 12 gauge white round that “accidentally” triggered while it was speaking (or the black spot on the ceiling of the burnt powder).
The same goes for times when we have been allowed to handle multiple weapons, with different actions, safety mechanisms, etc. Nothing replaces this kind of experience.
For this reason, I organized our own field day last week. A semi-automatic ring shot offered a new perspective, especially shot from a bench, hand-held and sitting on the floor.
A breaking action 20 caliber, fired at fixed and flying targets, was also a valuable experience.
And we practiced putting up the shotgun before shooting, and then doing the same after taking a few steps, to simulate a hunting scenario.
Even though our little session was far from a complete experience, I felt reassured. This kind of kinetic and practical connection is invaluable in bridging the gap between concept and real life.
Captain Jon Paurus, Education Programs Manager for the Law Enforcement Division of MNR, seems to agree: “The live field days are very, very precious in my opinion. “
I spoke to him the other day because I was wondering about the role of online gun safety courses (alternatively referred to as “hunter education” these days) and how it all works.
Unsurprisingly, he said: “The total number of certified students over the past two years is declining.
He told me that in 2019 there were 868 firearms safety courses being offered statewide. In 2020, that number fell to 125.
Out of necessity, learners have shifted heavily from face-to-face lessons to online offerings. Demand has skyrocketed.
Paurus said the provider Minnesota DNR uses to deliver online courses “has really struggled to keep up with the large influx.”
It seems like things were rough at first, but the company – which provides similar services to some 40 states – has managed to smooth things over.
Just as classroom instruction has changed, so has the shooting experience. Prior to COVID-19, the online option was available for those 18 and over, including the Virtual Field Day.
Students aged 11 to 17 were able to watch the classroom portion online, but had to attend a “live” field day.
Paurus said providing enough in-person field days to accommodate all students is always a struggle. This creates what he calls a “bottleneck” in the certification process, which has only been exacerbated by the pandemic, and the virtual field day option has been extended to those aged 14 and over. .
Students aged 11 to 13 still need to attend a field day to gain full certification. But they can hunt between courses and full certification by obtaining apprentice hunter validation, which Paurus says is “like an affidavit that they will be under adult supervision at all times.”
It feels a bit like kicking the box on the road to me. Not that there is a choice, really. They should expect to be able to eliminate this bottleneck at some point.
I asked if expanded online education was here to stay, or if Paurus and other policymakers would try to get things back to “normal” in a post-pandemic world.
With the caveat that it would be impossible to predict exactly, he said: “This is the framework we have been discussing… that there will be a time when we return.”
It looks like my son will land in this learning purgatory for now if he completes his online safety course before the spring turkey season (and wants to hunt). If so, we’ll have to get apprentice validation and organize another Heilman family field day.
As for my daughter, her day in the country ended with a short pheasant hunt in the afternoon and another the next morning. Walking right behind her, I acted as both a dog trainer and an observer.
It worked perfectly; I was able to give her instructions when she needed it, as well as supervise her weapon handling throughout.
I’m proud to say she did a great job.
Our furry pheasant fanatic pointed out a few chickens, which were both exciting and educational for my favorite 15 year old. A running couple of roosters also provided a thrill while narrowly denying a viable shot.
It hurt to bring her closer without being able to bring her first bird home. But that’s part of the hunt.
And a lesson that cannot be learned online.
Roy Heilman is an outdoor enthusiast, writer, musician and native of Minnesota. His adventures take him all over the map, but he can still be found at neveragoosechase.com.