When should I teach my kids how to shoot a gun?

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If you look at the Maine hunting season calendar put out by Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife you will notice three Youth Hunting Days, one in August for bear, one in October for deer, and one in the spring for Youth Spring Wild Turkey Day. This got me wondering about youth hunting laws in Maine and, in particular, when our family could start training our kids to properly use a hunting rifle.

Now, before you get your feathers all in a ruffle about kids and guns and politics and such, let me just tell you that in Maine there is a long and respected tradition of parents teaching their kids how to respect guns, use them safely and appreciate the fine art of hunting. Whether you agree with hunting or whatever your views are on gun laws, this post is specifically about the tradition of passing down the love of hunting from one generation to another.

My family has been hunting for generations. While I am not really into it myself, I do think it is worth teaching to my kids for in many ways it offers an array of lessons that span ethics, morals, skill, grace, and self-control. Moreover, hunting gives kids a wonderful opportunity to be close to nature and learn about animal behaviors as well getting a close up look at what being a steward of your enviornment truly looks like.

Hunting may not be for everyone. I get that. But for many of us in Maine, hunting is a rite of passage for our kids. With this in mind, I did some research to find out about the laws around youth hunting.

Here is what I learned:

What the law says

According to the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, this is the basic rule for junior hunters:

“Children must have a junior hunting license to hunt. There is no minimum hunting age for a junior hunting license holder, any hunter under the age of 16 may purchase a junior hunting license. Junior hunting license holders can hunt with a firearm, bow and arrow, or crossbow (for additional information, see Crossbow Information). The junior hunting license also includes hunting permits for muzzleloader, spring and fall turkey, bear, coyote night hunt, pheasant, state migratory waterfowl, one expanded archery antlerless deer permit and one either sex permit. A junior hunter who is 15 may continue to hunt on their junior hunting license after turning 16 for the remainder of the calendar year. If a hunter 16 years of age completes hunter safety and upgrades to an adult license they must purchase necessary permits.”

This law can be interpreted in many ways. For example, in an extreme case, one could hypothetically allow a toddler to learn to shoot, but morally and ethically that would be ridiculous — not to mention reckless and stupid.

It is up to parents to decide how mature a child is and how well that child can follow directions, demonstrate self-control and respect, and how interested in the art of hunting and following in tradition he or she really is.

Since age cannot be a reliable predictor or maturity, the newly written junior hunting law takes into account that in some cases a 9-year-old may be better emotionally and mentally equipped to learn how to shoot than 12-year-old who may be highly distracted or hyperactive. Learning to hunt requires a few key skills in self-control, and not every kid at the age of 10 equally possess them.

What Mainers traditionally do

For many years, hunting families in Maine would look forward to a child’s 10th birthday because it signified the legal opportunity for a kid to hunt under the strict supervision of a family member. This was largely seen as a rite of passage and many proud images of first turkeys and deer were captured in photos and passed around Facebook.

But before these kids celebrated their 10th birthdays, they were already learning how to handle a weapon. Many parents would start with sticks or plastic guns and teach them the basics of where to point and where not to point. How to walk with a gun and how not to. These kids would advance to BB guns or even practice bows and arrows to learn how to shoot a target. Parents would show them how to take care of their weapons in safe ways and model for them responsible behaviors.

How to start with training

Experts agree that the first official step in learning to hunt is to take a hunting safety course. Anyone can take three different offerings of courses, which are standard classroom courses that cover 12 hours of study, or the home study that covers nine hours of materials, and finally, the online courses that cover around seven hours of study.

To find a safety course near you, call your area or the Recreational Safety Division Office at 207-287-5220.

Hunting safety tips

Linked here is a PDF of hunting safety tips for hunters and non-hunters. Here are a few tips that stood out to me from this PDF:

  • Check hunting equipment before and after each outing and maintain it properly. Familiarize yourself with its operation before using it in the field.
  • Carry a first aid kit.
  • Put hunting plans in writing (dates, times, location and expected time of return). The Coast Guard recommends putting boating plans in writing; leaving one at home and one on your vehicle.
  • If accompanied by a dog, the dog should also wear hunter orange or a very visible color on a vest, leash, coat or bandanna.
  • Make yourself known. If you do hear shooting, raise your voice and let hunters know that you are in the vicinity.
  • Know when hunting seasons are. Continue to hike, but learn about where and when hunting is taking place.
  • Know your own comfort level. If hunting makes you uneasy, choose a hike in a location where hunting is not allowed, such as a national park or a state memorial or historic sites, or schedule your outings for Sundays. *** PLEASE NOTE: Hunting is allowed at many state parks, but not at state memorials or historic sites… and here is a list of state parks where hunting is NOT allowed. Here is a list of where hunting is NOT allowed.

Firearm safety tips

The NRA has lots of great safety tips for new and seasoned hunters and gun users to be aware of. A few safety tips that all gun users should practice every time they use a gun are the following:

  • Never use a gun if you are under the influence of alcohol or drugs (legal or not legal).
  • ALWAYS point your gun down and away from people and in a SAFE direction.
  • ALWAYS keep your fingers OFF the trigger when walking or holding a gun unless you are ready to shoot.
  • ALWAYS keep your gun UNLOADED until you are ready to use it.
  • ALWAYS store your weapon in a safe place where unintended hands CANNOT reach it. That includes your junior hunter-in-training.

Hunting safety courses in Maine

Here is a list of several well-known and respected hunting safety courses in Maine. Of course, there are many more courses than just these and you can find those by calling your area or the Recreational Safety Division Office at 207-287-5220.

L.L. Bean

Archery Hunting Safety Course – DIF&W

Firearms Hunting Safety Course – DIF&W

Maine Hunter Ed Course – Online

Map of Shooting Ranges in Maine

A final word on what parents should know

Responsible parents are the best judge of when a kid is ready to handle learning how to hunt and how to use a weapon whether it is a bow and arrow, a stick for practice, a BB gun or rifle. Not all kids are ready at the age of 10. Some are ready at 6 and other at 16.

Please practice the most cautious and conservative safety rules TO THE LETTER in order to ensure everyone’s safety, especially your child’s.

Sarah Cottrell

About Sarah Cottrell

Maine-based writer Sarah Cottrell is the voice behind Housewife Plus at the Bangor Daily News and is a regular contributor to Disney’s Babble and Momtastic. She is a co-author in six books including I Still Just Want To Pee Alone from the New York Times Bestselling series. Sarah’s work has also been highlighted and featured by SELF Magazine, National Public Radio, Washington Post, and VICE Tonic.