Ten bullet holes, each smaller than a pencil eraser, pierced the 10 bullseyes sitting before Tabitha Halupa. She fingered the clean punctures in the paper target, from a round two weeks earlier. Ten golden shots. A perfect score.
The petite Connecticut 18 year old, with her shy smile and inky black pixie cut, is likely not the image that comes to mind with the words "American rifle owner." But Tabitha's faculty with a gun shatters any preconceptions about her ability. A National Rifle Association "distinguished expert," she wields a firearm with the proficiency of a competitive sharpshooter.
"This was her first perfect target offhand," Mark Halupa said, gesturing toward his daughter and the bullseyes. "Offhand," a term describing shots taken while standing up, is the most difficult rifle position for an athlete to master.
"Gun" can be a charged word, and since the Parkland massacre last February, national attention has largely been focused on the danger firearms pose. But while guns can tear families apart, they can also bring them together.
For the Halupas, the shooting sports occupy a warm place in family life. They are an activity to be valued, not feared, Mark explained, an exercise in parent-child bonding and personal growth.
"Guns by nature are not a bad thing just because they're guns," the father said. "They have very legitimate and enjoyable applications in the lives of good people." Now a firearms instructor at the Ramapoo Rifle and Revolver Club in Ridgefield, he taught Tabitha to shoot at the age of six – BB guns at a paper target in the basement and a .22 caliber rifle at balloons in the fields.
"Shooting helps youth develop at a young age and teaches them skills – like discipline – that hopefully will stick with them throughout the rest of their life," said John Tedder, an instructor at the Wooster gun range in nearby Danbury.
Tedder, whose father and grandfather taught him how to shoot at the age of five, thought experience with guns trained him to act with care and caution. "The moment you put the magazine in, you have to know mentally and physically that everything is straight," he said.
Athletes hone their focus and discipline with what USA Shooting junior pistol coach Jason Turner refers to as a "shot plan," a series of motions experienced shooters follow when they pull the trigger. The procedure, different for every athlete, roughly consists of measures like "align on target, breathe in, breathe out, shoot, hold."
The objective is to ensure "all shots are the same every time" by forcing shooters to "control their minds and think in steps," Turner said. Upper-level firearm competitions look like choreographed dances, with athletes' actions visibly deliberate and pre-planned, he noted.
The shot plan's lessons in focus and step-by-step breakdown of a task may benefit shooters even off the range.
"Being in the shooting sports, I never got into any trouble at school," said Hank Garvey, Jr. The 20 year old from Newburyport, Mass. is a member of the USA Shooting junior development team, who entered his first firearm competition at the age of eight.
"The responsibility of having a gun taught me responsibility in other areas of life. I think when you grow up with firearms, you realize they're tools, and like any other tool, you can hurt someone," he said, citing the danger of workshop instruments like the bandsaw. "But, if you learn to respect the tool, you're safe. I think learning that discipline made me mature so much faster."
Shooting, like martial arts or golf, is an intensely mental sport, Garvey noted. A successful athlete must be confident but not cocky, alert but not over-energetic.
A calm mind is key – shooters need the concentration to stop breathing in the moments before firing, so as not to disturb the angle of their gun with the movement of their chest, according to Bob Evans, co-instructor at the Ramapoo club with Mark Halupa.
The same mental effort to remain motionless persists even after an athlete pulls the trigger, Evans said. He tells his students to keep their guns sighted on the bullseye, as if they were still shooting, for two to three seconds after the shot.
"The conscious effort to keep the gun on target after the gun has gone off contributes to the subconscious action before and while it's going off," he said. "Just like when you golf – you swing through the golf ball." Shooters must steady their guns and steel themselves not to flinch with the recoil of the firearm.
But even with years of training, the fight against all movement is impossible to win. "As long as you're alive and your heart is beating, you can't be still," Mark Halupa said.
No matter who is pulling the trigger, a firearm will always waver slightly, the gun barrel typically swaying around the bullseye in the shape of an infinity sign. The goal of the shot plan, the extreme focus, and the hours of practicing discipline, is not to stop the motion, exactly, but to rein it in, Mark said, shrinking the figure-eight to the smallest possible size. Shooters use mental forces to restrain physical ones. External stability has internal origins.
"And this is why it's an art," Evans concluded. "This is why it's a sport."
ABOUT THE WRITER
Callie McQuilkin, 18, is an iGeneration Youth reporter living in Ithaca, New York.
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