May 11, 2018 11:18:40 AM
ALBANY, N.Y. -- Jillian Zakrzeski's skills with an air rifle earned her three New York state high school shooting championships, a berth in the Junior Olympics and even recruitment to a college rifle team.
"It's an amazing sport. It's not popular like soccer or tennis. But it changed my life," says Zakrzeski, a 19-year-old criminal justice major at the University of Mississippi. "I can't see my life without it."
But a proposal in New York's legislature would outlaw all high school shooting sports programs in the state -- including air rifle teams and archery clubs -- on the premise that they feed into a gun and shooting culture that could lead to violence.
The bill's sponsor, Manhattan Democratic Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, says she introduced her bill after reports that the suspect in the Valentine's Day shooting in Parkland, Florida, Nikolas Cruz, honed his gun skills through a program in the same school where he's accused of killing 17 people.
"Schools should not be supporting the spread of gun culture in society," Rosenthal says. "If parents want their children to have shooting instruction, there are opportunities that have nothing to do with the school."
Rosenthal's proposal has yet to reach a vote and its prospects in the waning days of the legislative session are uncertain. But already it has reopened a debate about the benefits of responsible gun use, largely split along cultural lines between the New York City-centric downstate, and upstate areas where hunting and target shooting are more prevalent.
Assemblyman Will Barclay, a central New York Republican, called Rosenthal's proposal "nonsensical." In a statement, he said: "I am unaware of any evidence that links gun violence to these programs and the student athletes in my district who are involved in these teams and are great, responsible kids."
Nationally, there are an estimated 5,000 gun clubs at high schools and universities, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation. They use a variety of firearms, from air rifles that shoot pellets to 9 mm pistols that fire bullets. Some participants hope to qualify for Olympic competition.
Cruz's Junior ROTC air rifle team at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School was sponsored by the National Rifle Association Foundation, which tax records show gave nearly $2.2 million in cash or equipment to schools across 30 states in 2016. About $17,000 of NRA money from 2010 through 2016 went to programs in New York schools.
Air riflery is currently the smallest varsity sport in New York state, with 28 teams statewide and 266 participants last year. It has also emerged as a very female-dominated sport, with girls winning 19 of the last 31 state individual air rifle championships.
"It's a sport that takes a lot of concentration and discipline," says George Hathaway, riflery coordinator for the New York State Public High School Athletic Association. "The more scholarly kids are the ones attracted to it."
Zakrzeski, from the central New York town of Constantia, says the attributes that made her a riflery champion also carried over to the classroom, where she was an honor roll student. Her younger sister Kamille, who is still involved in the high school program, says she nearly cried when she heard there was a proposal to shut it down.
"It was shocking to me," the elder Zakrzeski said of the proposal. "Nothing bad has ever happened in marksmanship programs."
Rosenthal's bill would also ban school archery programs, which are promoted by New York's Department of Environmental Conservation and include 34,000 students in 320 schools.
Janna Recchio of Rome in central New York said her 11-year-old daughter, Gina, was introduced to archery in fifth-grade gym class in January and just two months later was able to qualify for the national tournament in Louisville, Kentucky.
"It's a great hobby for her," Recchio says. "She's very focused, controlled and calm."
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