SMITHFIELD (WTVD) --Students at Smithfield Selma High School take aim and fire at a shooting range located on school grounds. When they're done, they wash their hands to get the traces of lead off.
They use air rifles to shoot pellets, not bullets, in the small, four-lane, indoor shooting range. The air rifle marksmanship program is part of the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps at the high school.
The school participates in the Civilian Marksmanship Program, a program that promotes "firearms safety, and marksmanship training for citizens with an emphasis on youth."
According to CMP, 2,630 high schools have a marksmanship program affiliated with them - 140 of those are in North Carolina.
"We do not shoot firearms," marksmanship instructor, Commander David Michael Wegman said. "A firearm by definition is a weapon that uses a cartridge and that cartridge is either centerfire or rim fired and it contains gunpowder.
"What we use are air rifles, and our air rifles use a little bit of compressed air to push a very small piece of lead - that pellet is 8 grains in size, it's about 4 1/2 mm - and they use that little bit of compressed air to push that pellet 33 feet, 10 meters, down to a target.
"And the center of that target is about a half a millimeter in size, so it takes an awful lot of skill and concentration."
Commander David Michael Wegman is a senior naval science instructor at Smithfield Selma High School. He's been with the school for about a year and a half after retiring from the Navy following over 30 years of service.
He said the school already had an armory (full of air rifles and non-operating demonstration rifles for competitions) when he got there and a longstanding marksmanship program, so he wanted to figure out how to put it all to better use.
"It wasn't really working because logistically it was simply too difficult to load students on an activity bus and get them to the National Guard Armory here in Smithfield and then offload them and the weapons, and then get in there and set up and do all of the shooting," Wegman said. "So I just said 'Hey, why don't we just figure out a way to do that here on campus.'"
The school converted an unused greenhouse on campus for the cause. Wegman said contractors did about 25% of the work (like the roofing) and students did the rest, with the project cost coming to $10,400.
"It took us from about June of last year to December to get the funding, get the permissions, get the city of Smithfield to provide us with the building permits, and ultimately get the construction completed," Wegman said.
He said they received $10,500 in donations for it from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, the National Shooting Safety Foundation, and American Legion Post 132 in Smithfield.
"We talk about, a lot in this country, about teaching students responsibility. This goes beyond theory, to actually give them an opportunity to participate in something that is quite responsible," he said.
Smithfield Selma High School senior, Makayla Holder said she's attracted to the sense of accomplishment marksmanship brings as well a sense of equality.
"What we are as students, we learned to be the great equalizer," she said. "Basically, it explains anyone that can be big, small, yellow, black, purple, blue - it does not discriminate.
"You can be a person who's athletic, a person who is not athletic, a person who knows a lot about air rifles or guns, period - it doesn't really matter. But once you get the feeling of holding a gun, and learning how to basically shoot one, it gives you a great experience.
"It builds your confidence skills up. It makes you learn like 'Hey, I want to do this more.'"
SAFETY AND SPORT
Currently, only five seniors at Smithfield Selma High are allowed to shoot on the range.
Here are the things students have to do in order to use the practice range: be passing all their classes, have signed permission from their parents, enroll in a training class at the school, and read the Civilian Marksmanship Training Program booklet.
"The students are exposed to a very, very safe sport," Wegman said. "One of the reasons why it is one of the safest sports and all of education is because it is so closely supervised."
VIDEO: Commander Wegman explains how their air rifles work
Students practice three position air rifle marksmanship - a NCAA Division I and Olympic sport where marksmen demonstrate precision shooting in a standing, kneeling and prone (or lying) position.
"What is really neat for me is to observe how my students put their game faces on," Wegman said.
"They begin to really pay attention to details. They get very serious. We issue them their air rifles. They march down in formation out to the range. They listen to the orders. They pay attention to the orders, and they - I think it stretches them a little bit, I really do, I think the sport stretches them, it really makes them be on their game."
Compared to other popular high school sport, Wegman said, the threat of injury risks are relatively low.
"Air rifle marksmanship is incredibly safe when you compare the head injuries, the neck injuries are all the various injuries in football, high school football," he said.
Students also stressed the importance instructors there place of safety, like senior Mary Brown.
"We're shooting air rifles. They're not real guns, with real bullets and everything," Brown said. "And I know one main concern is you know, shooting in schools, well this thing is very, very well taken down.
"You know we make sure we are safe all the time, muzzle awareness, always locking up the rifles, having them in cases, not having them in school - only in the range - that kind of thing, you know.
"No other students ever see these weapons, that kind of ordeal too, so that's a huge misconception that, you know we're shooting guns and how dangerous it can be . . . and it is, it is a bit dangerous, but not fully to the extent people think."
Senior Hector Mendoza joined NJROTC because he aspires to follow in his cousin's footsteps and join the military. He agrees with Brown.
"This is an amazing program that we got here at SSS," Mendoza said. "It will teach us safety rules and how to be a better leader after high school. It teaches how to use our weapons and safety of our weapons, and teaches us how to follow leadership directions."
"I think what's important that I stress to people is that air rifle marksmanship has a long history, a very proud history in the United States, dating back to the 1600s," Wegman said. "It was marksman in our country that settled our nation, that fed our nation, and that ultimately defended our nation."
He said citizenship, service to the United States, personal responsibility and accomplishment are the values at the core of the Navy Junior ROTC's mission and that NJROTC is so much more than marksmanship.
"People should know that this marksmanship program, is not the only program that we have ROTC," Brown said. "You know we compete in drill meets, we have an academic team, an athletic team, orienteering meets - we do a bunch of different things. This isn't the only thing we do."
Brown said the experience has taught her a variety of applicable life skills, like how to wash and iron clothes (something she's learned to do as part of their weekly uniform wear), and also broader values.
"Well one thing I like about ROTC is it's not a military class, which is a huge thing people think 'Oh it's a military class,' and it's not," she said. "It's a life skills class that's taught through military, and military instructors.
"So here we learn about different things like leadership, we do a lot of community service work, we learn about history, all sorts of things - not just about the military. They're not here to recruit us. They're here to help us."
Wegman said the class is ultimately all about citizenship.
"This is a citizenship development program and so what we teach every single cadet, what we mentor, lead, guide, and direct every single cadet in our program, are those values.
"Values, things that we all uphold - the value of human life, the value of safety and security, something we call 'having each others backs,' so because of that we believe that the students will leave this program more responsible, more focused on things that matter.
"And they'll go out there and they won't have a tendency to do anything with a firearm that they wouldn't do with an air rifle."
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