Demand for firearms safety training is growing, leading to two trial runs this fall.
State officials are considering holding firearms safety training in state parks -- normally off-limits to hunting and target shooting -- to accommodate a growing demand for classes.
To try the idea, for the first time this fall they will let students shoot .22-caliber rifles in classes at a state recreation area and a wildlife management area.
If these trials go well, the firearms training, limited to a few hours on a handful of days, may be offered in the future at Fort Snelling State Park, William O'Brien State Park near Stillwater and other large state parks.
Officials stress that any shooting will take place under strict supervision in closed-off areas while parks keep operating in the usual way. The average park user "shouldn't even know we are there," said Capt. Mike Hammer, education program coordinator for the Department of Natural Resources division of enforcement.
People born after Dec. 31, 1979, who want to be licensed to hunt have to complete a hunter education course and fieldwork that includes shooting 15 rifle rounds under the watchful eyes of experts.
The pilot areas for sites on state land will be the Minnesota Valley State Recreation Area near Carver and the Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area near Forest Lake.
The first 20 to 25 students will get time slots in August or September. Hammer said the need is such that "I guarantee that once we post them they will be filled immediately."
To ensure safety, three to five people at a time will shoot under supervision of three instructors at a target 45 feet away, Hammer said.
"It doesn't get any more controlled than that. The students are there to succeed, so they are not out there messing around. They understand this is serious."
Ranges at capacity
Wildlife management areas are open for hunting, while state parks normally are not. If firearms training is extended to state parks, it won't be the first time that shooting takes place there. Special game hunts, usually to thin deer herds, are permitted in state parks now.
Still, Hammer said, setting aside a spot in a state park for student hunters to get acquainted with a gun would be something new, reflecting a growing demand for hunter education.
"Around the seven-county metro area ... we have reached the capacity at the local public and private shooting ranges," he said, and students and their families sometimes have difficulty finding a place to finish the shooting requirement.
To help, the Legislature this year ordered all police departments with shooting ranges to open them to class instructors six times a year. Many police chiefs expressed concern that their ranges were never intended for public use.
Because the state requires firearm safety training for anyone seeking a hunting license, the DNR thinks the state should provide places for students to complete the training, Hammer said.
In the three years the course has been offered online, enrollment has grown from 2,000 to a predicted 6,000 to 8,000 this year.
More than shooting
The training, which is offered in classrooms as well, each year leads to the certification of about 24,000 people to buy a hunting license, Hammer said.
The online course takes about eight hours. Students must get eight of 10 correct on all quizzes for the written portion of the training in order to complete the class and be eligible for hands-on training with a gun, Hammer said.
During the field day, instructors watch to see whether the students maintain proper control of the rifle and respect the rules and the safety of fellow students.
"We tell the instructors, 'If you wouldn't want them hunting with you, don't pass them.'"
For shooting practice, the DNR will find sites that are safe and minimize conflicts with other park users, Hammer said. Students will shoot into bullet-catching targets backed up by earth berms.
"We want to minimize the areas that will be closed off, and we want to be very careful," Hammer said.
Laurie Blake • 952-746-3287