HARMONY — The town of Harmony lived up to its name Saturday amid a gun climate that has been anything but.
More than 1,200 members of high school shooting teams put their skills to the test at the expansive Hunting Creek Preserve in Iredell County, hoping for a ticket to the state championship in April.
To many, the district tournament may have come at a strange time — where the words “teens” and “guns” are inflammatory at best after the harrowing school shooting in Florida last month — but the teens who competed asserted that the tragedy does not define what they do.
“There will always be bad people who want to do bad things with guns, but that does not define us,” said Spencer Ballus, one of the 52 members of Reagan High School’s shooting team. “Everyone here has a good head on their shoulders. We are conscientious, responsible and put safety first.”
Seventy-two teams competed at the district tournament Saturday, including local schools Reagan, West Forsyth, East Forsyth and Walkertown high schools.
The events — participated in by middle and high school students ages 12 to 18 — included rifle, shotgun, archery and orienteering, with each team amassing a cumulative score.
The top two teams will automatically qualify for state. The rest will have to wait until late March to see if their scores were high enough to merit a slot as one of the 40 best teams in North Carolina.
“It went very well,” said West Forsyth’s Megan Brown, as she hugged her friends and celebrated after scoring 980 out of 1,000 points in the shotgun event. “I think people can sometimes be ignorant about guns and what we do, but I think you should see us in action before you judge us.”
Shooting teams at schools are a relatively new thing, with Reagan’s team beginning eight years ago and West Forsyth’s team emerging just five years ago.
Back when the district tournament began in 1987, only five teams competed, but Saturday’s competition saw 72 teams — a testament to the growth of the sport.
“If we taught more about guns, I think we’d have a lot less shootings,” said parent Tony Bryant, whose son Cole Abbott competes on the Reagan team. “Instead of just playing video games, this teaches the kids to respect guns. It’s a wonderful thing.”
It can be hard work redefining the community perspective of shooting teams in a tense gun climate after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., that killed 17 people, but one murderer does not get to color a whole population, many people at the tournament said Saturday.
“It’s unfortunate that this incident has cast a cloud on the entire sport of shooting, but this is a sport just like any other sport,” said Barry Crews, Reagan’s shooting coach. “Our first and foremost rule is to educate and develop responsible outdoors-people and teach firearm safety and responsibility.”
Safety is paramount in the sport, with a range safety officer on hand at every practice, competition and scrimmage.
Each of the kids has to learn the safety handbook front to back, and Saturday’s competitors completed a safety test on Tuesday.
The shooting teams do more than just fire guns. They also learn wilderness skills, wildlife identification, archery, safety and land navigation.
“There’s a real emphasis on ethics. These kids are very respectful, and they take it very seriously,” said West Forsyth Coach John Brown, who has a team of 32 students. “We’re very strict to how we approach safety. There’s no playing around.”
The tournament was sandwiched between last week’s National Walkout — where 11,000 Forsyth County students left class for 17 minutes in tribute to the 17 lives lost in Florida — and next weekend’s “March for Our Lives,” which is a protest for gun-law reform.
But the tournament is largely apolitical — completed for the love of competition and the camaraderie that comes with being on a team.
“I do it for fun because I like getting to compete with my friends,” said Walkertown student Brandon Carrier, 12. “I like rifle because it’s something I grew up doing with my dad.”
Ballus, a senior at Reagan, has been practicing for the tournament since December and said he fell into the sport as a freshman in search of his niche.
His specialty is rifle, where he has to hit a small target with a bull’s-eye the size of a dime.
The team practices from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. every Saturday in a nearby Pfafftown farmer’s field, doing occasional farmwork in exchange for use of the land.
“I’d never really been into athletics, but I thought the team looked interesting,” Ballus said. “The camaraderie is the best part. It was the best decision I could’ve made.”