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Young Gun


by Blaine Smith, Associate Editor

Jon Michael McGrath II is one heckuva shot. A better shot than I am, I’ll admit.

Then again, he’s a better shot than most in the United States and come July, chances are, he’ll prove himself better than most in the world when he vies for gold at the London Olympics.

Though he hasn’t been named to the team yet, past being prologue, McGrath’s talent will certainly secure him a spot on the 2012 U.S. Olympic skeet contingent alongside Kim Rhode and one other yet-to-be-determined athlete. Still, the fact that he is nearly a shoo-in for the team hasn’t slowed his pace.

But that’s the way Olympic-caliber athletes like McGrath are: They know nothing is handed to them. Hard work, dedication and character define such competitors, and McGrath is no different. When not training or competing, he’s a college student, an Eagle Scout and an active ambassador of the shooting sports who pens magazine articles and attends events—he’s even given interviews and acted as a special correspondent for

There are those naysayers who loudly proclaim that young people shouldn’t have access to firearms, but having the opportunity to watch McGrath bust clays at the gun range on a recent afternoon, I was amazed by this young man’s singular talent. I was struck by the character evidenced by this shooting prodigy—degrees removed from the caricature of a violent thug that anti-gun groups are quick to slap on an adolescent who takes an interest in shooting.

Likewise, I was thankful this young man was able to find a calling at which he excels—and is experiencing the attendant travel throughout the world that it affords—expressly because he was offered the opportunity to shoot as an adolescent.

McGrath was 11 years old the day his life would change forever. On the last day of Boy Scout camp, the Oklahoma youth—having never fired a shotgun in his life—tried his hand at blasting a few targets. He found he enjoyed it.

John and his father, Jon McGrath Sr., also found that the youngster showed a natural aptitude for busting clays his first time shouldering a shotgun. Having witnessed the young Scout’s natural inclination for skeet shooting, the den masters on hand that day encouraged McGrath and his father to look into further shooting opportunities.

They found the opportunity they needed at the Tulsa Gun Club through the Scholastic Shooting Sports Foundation’s Scholastic Clay Target Program. Just four months later—four months after he fired a shotgun for the first time—11-year-old McGrath entered an international skeet competition in San Antonio, Texas, and took home a gold medal.

It’s a popular refrain among anti-gun groups: Kids and Guns Don’t Mix.

By attempting to exploit the visceral horror surrounding school shootings—which are, in reality, rare—gun-ban groups target parents unfamiliar with the shooting sports in an attempt to chip away at the number of future gun owners.

Though their nonsense has been proven false, these groups continue their campaigns of fearmongering because they know parents who have had no access to firearms will more easily be swayed by such propaganda. They also know the future of firearm freedom is only as strong as the next generation.

Take, for instance, a 2010 radio broadcast from WPSU, Penn State’s public broadcasting station, on the 11th anniversary of the Columbine High School killings.

For the program “This I Believe,” WPSU invites central Pennsylvania residents to submit essays pertaining to their personal philosophies and core values. Where guest essayist Alison Condie Jaenicke, a wife and mother of two, borrowed the title of her submission “Kids and Guns Don’t Mix” is clearly evident.

Jaenicke  admits she has never touched a gun, and when her son’s Boy Scout leader suggested the troop visit a shooting range, “I was alarmed.”

Still, Jaenicke accompanied her son and his troop to a daylong derby at a nearby camp, where the day’s events included shooting rifles and shotguns. The Scouts were provided with earplugs, safety glasses and instructions on the safe handling of firearms, and though she insisted her own son not handle a firearm, the atmosphere of safety and camaraderie found at the Boy Scout shoot that day almost convinced Jaenicke to acquiesce and allow her son to participate in the target practice. Almost.

“It reminded me of a shooting arcade on the Ocean City boardwalk,” she recalled, swayed at the time by the wholesome environment. “Tin targets shaped like chickens, ducks and pigs dangled from a wooden frame. Most boys pinged at least one tin creature. The sound reminded me of cap guns, which I suddenly remembered owning and enjoying as a kid. I left [the camp] thinking maybe it would be okay to let our son shoot at Boy Scout summer camp.”

But one month later, Jaenicke heard a news story about a horrific murder that, she says, cemented her aversion to guns.

“Some people see reports of gun violence in the news as unrelated to responsible gun use. But I believe our nation’s gun tragedies are directly linked to our obsession with the ‘right to bear arms’ and the insistence that children learn to shoot as soon as they can hold up a gun,” Jaenicke concluded in her essay. “If driving a car can wait until a child is 16, so can shooting a gun. I believe childhood should be a gun-free zone.”

Let me be clear: I do not wish to pick on Jaenicke. It’s obvious she is a caring mother who is only doing what she believes will keep her son safe.

But allowing her son to handle a firearm in a safe and productive atmosphere such as a Boy Scout shoot could have been the perfect opportunity to familiarize him with firearms—invaluable knowledge should he or a friend come upon a gun. With gun ownership rates steadily increasing throughout the United States, the possibility that an unsupervised youngster will one day stumble upon a firearm is distinct. Attempts to shield children from the reality of guns can be a deadly tack, as curiosity can drive children to unsafely handle firearms if they’ve never been told the true dangers involved.

Programs such as the Eddie Eagle GunSafe Program teach the youngest children to “stop! Don’t Touch. Leave the Area. Tell an Adult” if they come across firearms in unsupervised environments. NRA’s vast and varied array of youth programs (, as well as the opportunities afforded kids involved in the Boy Scouts, the Scholastic Clay Target Program and other shooting-friendly youth programs, offer invaluable instruction on the safe handling of firearms. This breeds familiarity, important in demystifying guns and, therefore, stemming accidents that could arise from a youngster sneaking to get a peek at a firearm.

Sadly, groups such as the Brady Campaign and the Violence Policy Center would prefer children never learn of firearms and never see or touch guns. They claim the Eddie Eagle program is an attempt by NRA to indoctrinate children into the shooting lifestyle, rather than an invaluable tool for parents, teachers and law enforcement to teach children basic, lifesaving steps. These groups claim youth shooting programs turn children into violent, hair-trigger offenders, when in fact they provide a safe, supervised environment where children can learn to properly handle firearms and spend quality time with family and friends building valuable life skills.

The benefits of youth involvement in the shooting sports, aside from safety, are immeasurable and last a lifetime. As the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) notes, learning to shoot requires children to develop discipline, self-control, hand-eye coordination and concentration. Respect, responsibility, sportsmanship and teamwork are instilled in youngsters as a result of learning the safety requirements for shooting. Likewise, the NSSF reports, beginning shooters oftentimes enjoy quick success, which in turn fosters a sense of self-esteem and confidence.

For many youngsters who may not be endowed with the physical attributes needed for success in sports where height, speed, body strength or agility are necessary—such as basketball, football and baseball—the shooting sports offer an alternative that gets them outside, participating and on a path that establishes core character traits which will benefit them the rest of their lives.

Jon Michael McGrath II (second from left) at the 2011 ISSF Combined World Cup in Sydney, Australia.

However, there are parents who allow their thoughts to be poisoned by gun-ban groups. In response, they deny their children participation in a pastime that could well benefit them the rest of their lives, like the previously mentioned mother who, out of love and fidelity, allowed abject fear to deny her 11-year-old son the experience of learning to shoot in a controlled, nurturing environment like Boy Scout camp.

Had another 11-year-old’s parents denied him the same experience, Jon Michael McGrath II wouldn’t today be on the cusp of winning a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team, and striving for gold this summer in London at the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Thank goodness, then, for programs like the Boy Scouts—which gave McGrath his introduction to firearms—as well as the NRA Junior Pistol and Junior Smallbore Rifle camps and the Scholastic Clay Target Program, which familiarize today’s youths with the shooting sports. Today, Jon Michael McGrath Sr. is chairman of the board of trustees of the Scholastic Shooting Sports Foundation in Tulsa. He became involved in skeet shooting, he says, not only because of the qualities he saw strengthened in his own son, but the impact it could have on any child who has the opportunity to partake in the shooting sports.

“These programs allow that little extra quality time to develop. It allows parents and grandparents to have quality time with the children before they leave the nest,” McGrath Sr. said.

The shooting sports also pay dividends in kids’ wider world, he said. “This sport requires intense focus, which carries over into school and work. This intense focus results in improved grades, and for [my son] led to the honor roll.”

“These are the leaders of tomorrow,” McGrath Sr. said of those young individuals who have dedicated themselves to the shooting sports.

Since scoring gold in that first competition at age 11, McGrath has blazed a trail of victories across the world of skeet shooting. All told, he currently holds 22 world skeet titles and nine national skeet titles.

The titles McGrath holds include the 2008 USA national champion in men’s open skeet; the 2009 NSSA world champion in men’s skeet, where he set a world record; the 2010 ISSF world champion in junior men’s skeet in Munich, Germany; the 2011 NSSA world champion in men’s skeet; and the 2011 World Cup gold medalist in Sydney, Australia.

McGrath’s travels have taken him to 12 different countries including Cyprus, Australia, Germany, England, Slovenia, Serbia, Belarus, Barbados and Chile, where last year he broke the world record in team skeet shooting. He’s also traveled to China and Italy, though not for competition.

While in Germany, McGrath was invited by Dieter Krieghoff to tour the Krieghoff factory in Ulm, Germany. In the country training for the World Championships, McGrath was the guest of Krieghoff to tour the facility where his competition shotgun—a 12-ga. Krieghoff K-80—was custom manufactured.

But Krieghoff isn’t the only shooting sports manufacturer to underwrite McGrath’s skeet-shooting career; his stable of sponsors includes Oakley eyewear, Briley chokes, HiViz shooting sight systems, Winchester ammunition, XCoil recoil pads and ESP (Electronic Shooters Protection) hearing protection.

These sponsorship arrangements allow McGrath access to some of the finest shooting products available without accruing the associated costs, thus furthering his chances for success. Of course, the relationships McGrath enjoys with these sponsors are symbiotic, as each company garners increased visibility by hitching its brand to a rising star in the shooting sports.

It’s McGrath’s relationship with his family, however, that has obviously molded him into the respectful, responsible and successful young man I met at the shooting range several weeks ago. Practicing for a skeet tournament to be held in Tennessee, McGrath chatted easily and confidently about his entry into the sport of skeet shooting, the tournaments he’s won, the places to which he has traveled and his chances of making the 2012 Olympic team—pretty good, he admits—all of it with an easy confidence.

McGrath’s father accompanied him to the range that day, and the pride he takes in his son is obvious; when I spoke with McGrath Jr., family was a topic he spoke proudly of as well. He affirms that the support and sacrifice they offer are vital ingredients to his success, and he’s thankful.

“It takes a lot of support to succeed in this sport, both emotional and monetary,” McGrath said. “As I travel throughout the United States and even the world, my dad accompanies me many times. He’s traveled with me overseas twice.

“Though the team funds the participants’ trips, the family must fund their own trips,” he said when I asked about the sacrifices his family has made for his sport. “Still, my dad looks after me many times when I travel to competitions. During these times, my mom and sister have to stay home—my sister is a senior in high school and is busy with all that involves, so my mom stays home with her.”

McGrath, too, must sacrifice for his sport. He admits his isn’t the life of an average teenager, and all of the training, nutrition, exercise, traveling and competition mean he misses out on much of the socializing and other experiences of his peers. Such concerns, though, seemed inconsequential that day when I watched as McGrath shattered clay target after clay target, finishing his training having missed not a single one.

Should this summer find McGrath shooting for Olympic gold in London, it’s doubtful the concerns of an ordinary teenager will cloud his mind as he competes for the pride of self, family and nation. All because a young man was given an opportunity to shoot.