This information provided by The Federal Observer, http://www.federalobserver.com
By KATE McLEAN - SENTINEL STAFF WRITER
SANTA CRUZ - Elle Sanders, 9, didn't ask Santa for a gun for Christmas this year. She already has one. She learned to handle a gun when she was 7, took hunter safety training last summer and shot her first pheasant at the ripe age of 8.
"That was quite an occasion," said Robert Sanders, Elle's father and a longtime Santa Cruz resident. "The whole family was there. Even the dog was there." School shootings have darkened the popular image of a boy with a gun. Guns are what boys and even girls wanted for Christmas a hundred years ago, both for hunting and as a rite of passage.
Of the 200,000 guns expected to be given as gifts this Christmas, more than 100,000 will be youth-sized rifles and shotguns - also known as long guns, says the Professional Gun Retailers Association.
Handguns, for the most part, aren't given to children, experts say.
While none of the Sanders children will get guns for Christmas this year, they all have youth-sized rifles and know how to handle them responsibly.
Sanders started taking his children - Elle; Zeke, 11; and Bobby, 13 - on hunting trips when they were about 5 and teaching them gun safety when each was 7. His wife, Liz, also hunts on occasion.
"Some families might be into skiing or biking or something," said Sanders. "We happen to go hunting. It gives us an opportunity to go do something outdoors together."
The long-gun market is so popular that the number of gun-makers offering youth models has doubled in the past decade to about 20 companies, says Robin Sharpless, a gun-marketing executive who is a member of the National Rifle Association's Youth Programs Committee.
"One has to recruit the next generation of participants," Sharpless said. "If golf did not have short clubs, you're not going to have as many kids getting into golfing."
This Christmas, gun sales for children and adults could get an added boost from the self-defense fever inspired by the events of Sept. 11. While that may be the trend nationally, it doesn't appear many in Santa Cruz County will find a rifle under the tree.
Last year, 1,508 handguns were purchased in Santa Cruz County. Sales of shotguns and rifles are not tracked, but Markley's Indoor Range and Gun Shop in Watsonville sells an average of 1,500 long guns per year. The store hasn't sold any as presents for kids this year.
But people might be surprised to learn that area sporting and gun enthusiasts consider gun ownership a family affair. At Markley's, the county's only public shooting range, 25 percent of weekend target shooters are families that include children and young teens.
"A lot of fathers and sons, or fathers and daughters, come in, but we also see entire families," said owner Scotty Mitchell. "The beginning age for young people here is around 12 or 13 - accompanied by a parent, of course."
Mitchell estimates as many as 30 families on any given weekend come to shoot targets at Markley's.
Yet for these families, gun ownership is often a tradition. Michael Satren, who shoots with his 13-year-old son at Markley's, teaches gun-safety classes and was raised with guns.
"I grew up on a farm in Minnesota, and my father had a shotgun," said Satren, a 54-year-old computer programmer and longtime Watsonville resident. "I've been teaching my son and taking him (shooting) since he was 8, always stressing safety, responsibility and technique."
Sometimes Satren's wife, Jill, joins them.
Tom Barrington, an instructor at Markley's, said children are ready to learn about guns when "They've got a desire to learn and to listen." The 70-year-old retired police officer and former competitive marksman said most kids are ready at age 12.
Michael Males, a UC Santa Cruz sociology lecturer, has written extensively on children and guns. Males, who has been researching area gun casualties, said that children in hunting and sport-shooting families are less likely to have gun accidents than children whose families own guns for protection.
Santa Cruz County has one of the lowest rates of gun casualties among youth in the state, with no accidental gun deaths in the last decade and seven accidental injuries, according to Males research said.
"Society puts too much emphasis on kids and guns when we should be putting the emphasis on adults and guns," Males said.
A gun-control advocate who grew up in a family "chock-full of guns and carelessness," Males said the low number of gun casualties locally indicates Santa Cruz is a fairly responsible place.
"If there's going to be a gun in the house," he said, "the parents who teach their kids how to handle it are doing the right thing."
The companies that sell guns for children, and the parents who buy them, realize that much of society doesn't approve. Some customers have complained about outdoor-goods retailer Orvis Co. showing a photograph in a recent catalog of a child holding a gun - albeit a cap gun. The holiday catalog of Ducks Unlimited, a wetlands conservation group, features a gun-toting child on its cover, but only because the publication goes strictly to hunters and sportsmen.
"I'm not sure the general public is that comfortable with guns ," said Tildy LaFarge, a spokeswoman for Ducks Unlimited.
Gun proponents point out, however, that in some high-profile school shootings - such as the one at Columbine High School, where 12 students and a teacher were killed - the kids firing the shots didn't get their weapons from parents.
To the contrary, they say, children who grow up in hunting families develop a deep respect for guns and their dangers. When such a child receives his or her own gun, the weapon itself delivers only half the thrill; the other half comes from the trust it conveys.
"It's a deposit of trust: 'I trust you to carry this deadly weapon and not shoot me, the dog or the neighbor,' " says Chris Draffen, a gun salesman in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
The age when that trust is granted differs widely. Under federal law, a youth must be 18 years old to purchase a long gun - that is, a shotgun or rifle - and 21 to buy a handgun. But it is legal by federal law to buy a gun for someone else as long as he or she is not legally prohibited from owning a firearm, as convicted felons are.
Many parents first subject children to hours of official safety training, typically conducted by state wildlife agencies; about half of the 750,000 people who take such training annually are under age 18, according to the International Hunter Education Association. In most states, any child old enough to understand the training is welcome to take it and then hunt, although there are some age restrictions on hunting big game. In California, a would-be hunter must be 12 to hunt big game.
The Wall Street Journal contributed to this report.
Contact Kate McLean
Source: Santa Cruz Sentinel