NORTHFIELD – The shooting range was quiet Saturday morning as Jason Kelvie unlocked the gate, raised the faded red flag and began unloading his truck.
Then the teenagers pulled up.
The Lakeville South High School teammates bounded onto the Suburban Sportsman Club’s field, its grass still soaked with dew, scarfing doughnuts, joking with coaches and filling their vests with ammunition.
“Are you ready?” Kelvie, the head coach, asked Stone Swanson, a junior.
“I was born ready,” Swanson replied with a raised eyebrow.
Trap shooting teams like this one, part of the Minnesota State High School Clay Target League, are reawakening aging gun clubs across the state. To make room for Minnesota’s fastest-growing high school sport, clubs are expanding hours, building fields and installing new target throwers.
Still, with 6,100 students competing, many clubs are maxed out. Waiting lists are growing.
This year, teams turned away 1,800 kids because of limited shooting range time, said Jim Sable, the league’s founder and executive director.
“To have kids want to participate in an extracurricular activity and then be told there isn’t room for them … it’s practically a mortal sin,” Sable said. “We ought to do everything we can to make room.”
Lawmakers are trying: They recently approved more than $2 million to build or upgrade shooting ranges. The grant program’s setup has not yet been finalized, but it might fund safety fixes at clubs with public hours, among other things, said Chuck Niska, shooting range coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Given the squeeze, some coaches wonder whether the league ought to shift from private clubs to public shooting ranges for youth.
“I don’t know how long this is going to exist riding on the backs of private ranges,” said Kelvie, whose Lakeville South team has 25 coaches and 10 safety officers for its 100 shooters. On the waiting list: 16 more.
Aiming for legitimacy
The problem of packed gun ranges seemed unimaginable just a decade ago, when clubs were losing leagues.
In northwest Minnesota, several shooting clubs had closed and “a couple more were struggling or on life support,” said Al Steinhauer, 75, a longtime shooter at the Thief River Falls Trap Club.
“These clubs had become old boys’ clubs. And the old boys pass away.”
A surge in high school teams, which send in their scores weekly from their local ranges, has been “a godsend to our area,” he said.
The league’s growth came quickly. In 2008, there were 54 kids from just three schools. Today, there are 6,100 from 380.