Some of Minnesota's 4,700 volunteer firearms safety instructors have put a Department of Natural Resources online gun safety training program in their cross hairs.
They say the course, made available last year for kids as young as 11, sacrifices safety for convenience and is a poor substitute for the traditional classroom instruction, which more than 1 million Minnesotans have passed over the past 50 years.
Some instructors say they would quit if forced to utilize the program.
But DNR officials nonetheless advocate the program, saying that in some cases online instruction offers better teaching than what is offered in traditional classrooms. And they say the program offers access for those too busy to attend regular classroom sessions.
"I'm confident they are getting the education they need,'' said Capt. Mike Hammer, DNR education programs coordinator. "I wouldn't be doing it if I didn't believe that.''
The interactive computer program "is in many cases a superior product than what we've been providing in the classroom,'' he added. "I know every student is getting the same presentation.''
John Miller, 48, of Lakeville has been a certified firearms safety instructor in Dakota County for 17 years. He heads a group of 20 or so volunteer instructors, none of whom likes the computer program, he said.
"I think it's a shortcut,'' he said. "They're trusting an 11-year-old will study online on his own. I wouldn't hunt with him. We're running the risk of accident rates going up.''
Miller also said the DNR appears to be more concerned with trying to recruit young hunters than ensuring they are properly trained.
The DNR's online course had been for students 16 and older, but last year the agency dropped the age to 11. Miller said the program may be OK for older students, including adults, who have some experience with firearms.
Hammer counters that many instructors aren't familiar with the computer program and that if they were they would be more supportive.
"Many don't understand because they aren't willing to look at it,'' he said. "The traditional classroom isn't going to go away.''
If it does, instructor Steve Sandberg, 68, of Inver Grove Heights and his four fellow instructors, all critics of the online program, say the response would be swift: "We'd all quit.''
Stressing that the computer course removes a roadblock for students and families whose schedules make it difficult for them to attend classes, Hammer believes the state is losing new hunters because of those obstacles.
About 23,000 people, mostly youths, complete firearms safety training yearly -- a number that has stayed constant for a decade. About 1,900 -- or 9 percent -- used the online course last year. This year the number increased to 17 percent, and Hammer expects that percentage to grow.
Parents also divided
"I think it's really important to have personal instruction, and personal attention,'' said Matt Davis of Lakeville, father of eight, all of whom have completed traditional firearms safety training.
Two of his daughters, twins Hope and Faith, both 11, completed Miller's firearms safety course this fall. Davis said the personal attention ensured his kids learned how to safely handle firearms. His daughters brought their guns to all five classes, and they were taught how to carry their guns safely, how to load and unload them, and more.
"You're not going to get that at home on a computer,'' he said.
But Rob Reynolds, Eden Prairie police chief, gives the online study program rave reviews. His 12-year-old son, Adam, completed it this summer.
"I was a little skeptical about it, too,'' he said. "How can an online course be as good as a class? But I sat next to him and watched him go through it. I was thoroughly impressed. It's really well done.''
The interactive program has narration and animation.
"Adam was excited about it. He probably put in 25-plus hours. It's not something you just click through," Reynolds said. "What a lot of us over 40 have to get over is this is just the way kids learn today.''
Under both the traditional classroom and the online programs, students get hands-on experience with firearms because they must complete a "range and field day" to demonstrate their knowledge.
Under the traditional training, students go through 12 to 20 hours of classroom and range-day instruction, using a 130-page booklet. Students must pass a 50-question written exam. The training culminates in the field day, which varies from 2 1/2 hours to 6 hours or more, depending on the instructors.
Miller's courses are about 22 hours, including at least a six-hour range day.
But Hammer said not every class gives such personal attention. "If people think kids are getting hands-on experience with firearms in every classroom, they are mistaken,'' he said.
Under the online program, students must pass tests on each of 15 chapters before proceeding to the next. When they finish, they then must attend a special all-day range and field day, which gives them the hands-on experience with firearms they missed in traditional classes, Hammer said.
"They have to be able to show what they learned,'' he said.
Not the same
Miller and some other instructors have declined to offer a range and field day for online students.
"We absolutely do not take them,'' Miller said. "We don't know if the 12-year-old student did the online work or his brother or mom or dad did.''
Hammer acknowledges that finding enough all-day field days for online students has been difficult. Only about 500 of the 4,700 instructors have been trained to provide those all-day sessions.
"So far, we've kept up with demand,'' he said.
Said Hammer: "Change is difficult. I'm on a tightrope. I have to provide opportunities to our customers but also retain instructors who might be slow to accept change.
"It's going to take a while.''