Post 731 brings youth air rifle program back to Southern California

Post 731 brings youth air rifle program back to Southern California

Five years ago, members of American Legion Post 731 in San Diego, Calif., saw a need to reignite the youth air rifle program within their post and District 22 as participation and interest was decreasing departmentwide. Financially sound, Post 731 sponsors the program for all 29 posts in the San Diego County to encourage participation.  

“We took it on for San Diego County for all of our American Legion posts here to give them an opportunity to send shooters and participate because we've just been very blessed financially,” said Chuck Camarato, Post 731 finance officer.  About five posts within the county participate, but the active air rifle program has gained momentum beyond District 22 as other California posts are now sponsoring American Legion air rifle teams.  

“It seems people have noticed that we were doing this and they're trying to revitalize their programs as well,” said Francis Hall, Post 731 program director. “It’s nice to see that maybe we started something that other people could put momentum behind, because I've had a couple calls with people from California posts trying to start the program. It’s nice to see that maybe there's some interest in what we've built.”

Around 35 youth have participated in the program since its inception, with numbers ranging from six to 12 on the team a year. The youth practice every Saturday morning at a local gun range that Post 731 has a good relationship with. The range provides Post 731 the facility in a lockdown atmosphere for the first two hours before they open to the public at 10 a.m. Camarato said having the team practice at a local range has been good for liability coverage.

“One of the difficulties that a lot of American Legion posts are finding is that liability insurance is what's really restricting posts from having vital programs like this,” he said. “We were looking at a restriction with our facility so we went to the gun range, and we asked them if we could participate there under their umbrella and they welcomed us with open arms. We pay a minor fee per student that shoots. It’s extremely affordable for the post, and it's certainly not their standard fee that they would charge regular customers.”

To help draw in participation, Post 731 recruits from its other youth programs like Boys State, Girls State, Scouting, Girls Scouts and Legion Baseball. They too distribute marketing materials to JROTC units, Boy Scout councils and American Legion district meetings.

“We certainly got some very high caliber young men and women because we have been able to interact with our other programs with some of these youth, which has been outstanding for us because these are very energetic youth that we have who want to make the best of everything,” Camarato said.

“There is good participation and awareness around San Diego County about this program,” Hall added.

NRA-certified Legionnaires from Post 731 and surrounding posts are program instructors. If additional training is needed for instructors, Post 731 pays for it “which really incentivizes post members to participate,” Hall said.

“We have easily spent $50,000 building this program, not just in the participation levels but also in the cost of the program and buying the materials that it takes to actually run a program like this,” Camarato said. “Now, when somebody wants to start the program, we're able to guide other American Legion post into establishing the program.”

Camarato said as with any program, there’s trial and error. “And we certainly have had our trial and errors in in building this program. You have to know which rifles to buy. You have to know what gear is good, and you have to know how to train the kids in safety courses and how to improve their skill basis. That took us a couple of years to kind of gain our footing on becoming experts.”

He credits the Civilian Marksmanship Program (CMP) in being instrumental in getting the air rifle program running, as CMP instructors came to the post to provide lectures on how to conduct a youth shooting program. Other valuable resource materials came from The American Legion National Headquarters Junior Shooting Sports web page, along with posters ordered from Amazon that show correct firing positions and rifle safety guidelines.

“There’s a lots of ways to enhance your program to keep safety in mind and to keep focus on the art of marksmanship. That was all things we had to learn in the beginning on how to get those resources and use those resources,” Camarato said.

Hall added that trust is also vital to starting an American Legion air rifle program.

“When building an air rifle program, you have to build trust with the instructors and the parents because if they see that this is safe, because it's new and there's no legacy to build on, the parents have to understand that we are qualified and that this a nationally recognized program,” he said. “We have NRA-qualified instructors. Everyone takes youth training on sexual abuse. This is a safe environment for their kids.

“At the beginning, we would have the parents come to the range to see how we conducted business, so they felt a sense of security. Then these same parents, by word of mouth, recruit all the kids. We have a lot of siblings coming onto the team and friends of people who participated. So getting the trust of the parents and kids, getting the professionalism of the instructors, and then building on that legacy helped us build the program too. The trust factor of the parents is a critical piece.”

Hall’s children participated in Post 731’s air rifle program, and even though they have graduated from high school, he remains committed to the program for a few reasons.

“One of the pillars of The American Legion is Americanism. That's not always found in schools and the community, but this is a chance for us to teach people about Americanism and what our country stands for and the sacrifices soldiers and sailors have made throughout the years,” he said. “And because it's an opportunity for kids who are not the captain of the football team or the star basketball player to go in there and do something that they can excel in because you don't really have to be the greatest athlete to do this, but you have to concentrate, you have to show up for practice, you have to commit to the team. It’s an opportunity for young men and young women to feel like they're part of a team and distinguish themselves in some way. I think teaching them about the core values of our country and giving them opportunity to be a team and learn an opportunity to distinguish themselves is pretty cool.”

Camarato’s commitment is grounded on educating about firearm safety.

“To me, it's the education in a day of age when it just seems like firearms have such negativity publicity out there,” he said. “The United States of America is very highly behind its Second Amendment rights, and when you take away the education from the youth to learn safety and marksmanship, you handicap our youth for the future. I'm all in favor of teaching our youth the proper procedures for our safe firearm handling versus no education whatsoever.”

At the end of the program year in late April, Post 731 holds a capstone event for the youth, their parents and instructors at an outdoor gun range. They do firearms training, a live shoot with various firearms and enjoy food and an awards ceremony.  “It’s amazing,” Camarato said. “They are always crazy about this capstone event. It’s a huge way to end the program for the year.”

And this fall, Post 731’s shooting sports program will have three participants as cadets at West Point.

“We've had kids from the shooting team joined the military, and I think it opens up people's minds to who The American Legion is and what we do,” Hall said. “I think we're trying to build the next generation of American Legion members and awareness because the shooting sports teams is another opportunity to show what The American Legion can leverage to make our country better.”