How young is too young?

Three months ago, I ran a photo with this column of my 5-year-old nephew kneeling behind an 11-pointer I shot with my muzzleloader. Under the picture I ran a caption that read further proof that the minimum age to hunt big game in New York should be lowered. The photo was meant to be a spoof - a humorous poke at the fact that, in my opinion, the minimum big game hunting age in New York should be lowered from 16 to 14. At the time, my comrade on this outdoors page, Joe Hackett, warned it might not be taken as a joke. Turns out he was right - I fielded half a dozen calls from irate readers who were flabbergasted that Id let a child shoot a high powered rifle. You should be ashamed of yourself, one woman screamed into the receiver. Thats a form of child abuse, bellowed another. I had to chuckle. Honestly, I couldnt believe anyone would consider it a serious gesture on my part. Those who know me certainly did not. The irony is, it actually does happen in other states. Thirty of the 50 states in this country have no minimum hunting age requirement whatsoever. Take, for example, the 5-year-old Arkansas boy who shot his first bear last December. ESPN reported Tre Merritt, who was hunting with his grandfather, Mike Merritt, shot a 445-pound black bear with his youth model .243. Tre, believe it or not, is a direct descendant of Davy Crockett, which may explain at least part of why the story hit national news wires. But a lesser known fact is it wasnt Tres first kill last year. He harvested three deer before that. Tre Merritt's father, Wheatley, said he began teaching his son to shoot when he was just 2 years old. Then, a second story surfaced in January after Brennon Sikes downed his first buck on the Pearl River in Sandy Hook, Miss. He was 4. Brennon bagged the 150-pound six-pointer with a T/C Contender 30/30 while hunting with his dad. And, the examples do not end there. Interestingly, South Dakota is considering legislation to lower its minimum big game hunting age from 12 to 10. Like New York, opinions on the proposal have varied widely. Those in favor argue hunting is becoming a lost tradition in a nation where it once meant food for survival. They say the sport is losing thousands of future hunters because many children embrace other, often times less healthy activities at an early age. On the flip side, opponents argue youngsters are not physically capable of carrying rifles and shotguns, and many are not mature enough to be trusted with making safe decisions with weapons. The Sioux City Journal reported Vince Weber, who teaches gun safety courses in Sioux Falls, said children younger than 12 are not yet ready to be trusted with guns. Turning them loose in the field would be as dangerous as letting them use power tools, he said. How many of you, with all the best intentions in the world and standing right at their shoulder, are going to let your 8-year-old grandson run your table saw? Weber asked lawmakers. The NRA, on the other hand, says parents should be allowed to determine when their youngsters are ready to hunt. They point out the 30 states with no age requirement for hunters have better hunting safety records than the 20 states that dont allow young hunters. To date, the legislation in South Dakota has not been passed. Neither has the New York proposal the one I strongly support which would allow 14-year-olds to hunt big game in New York under adult supervision. Am I for allowing a 4 or 5-year-old to shoot a high powered rifle at a game animal? Not hardly. But not giving hunting families the ability to introduce kids, in a supervised setting, to what undoubtedly will be one of the most positive influences on their young lives is equally ludicrous.

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