On a cool and sunny Saturday in December, the picnic area at Alligator Alley in Summerdale is buzzing with camo clad families from Orange Beach. Children as young as 6-years-old set their unloaded shotguns on a rack and check in. Chris Litton, the logistics and safety coordinator for the City of Orange Beach, is preparing for a fun and educational day of shooting.
For over 12 years, Litton has worked with the city to establish firearm safety and training for the youth of Orange Beach. The City of Orange Beach Youth Shooting Sports Program offers a Rifle Shoot, Sporting Clay Shoot and a Youth Dove Hunt. The children have fun, but the primary focus is to teach proper firearm safety and technique.
“I was fortunate enough to handle firearms and ammunition my whole life. As a kid, I was constantly out in the field with my father and he was teaching me how to hunt and most importantly was teaching me gun safety,” Litton said.
When Litton started working for the City of Orange Beach, he managed the recreation center. During a hunter education field day he was encouraged to start a program locally.
Litton became a certified rifle instructor and range safety officer in 2006 and began a National Rifle Association (NRA) Air Rifle course. The weeklong course taught youth the different shooting positions, techniques and fundamentals of rifle shooting. Before the students could be certified they had to have live fire experience.
“The Saturday after the course, I would take them to the Orange Beach Shooting Range and they would fire 22 rifles using the techniques that we had taught them throughout the course of the week to hit their targets. Then I would certify them as NRA Rifle Certified,” Litton said.
Litton also became a hunter education instructor giving him access to state resources and personnel that came to help with the new initiative.
The weeklong courses morphed into four, one-day summer camps. Those programs include a rifle shoot, sporting clay shoot, archery shoot and black powder shoot giving the youth an introduction to different disciplines and sports. But the rifle program has always been Litton’s primary focus because he wants to take away the novelty of the first-person shooter video games.
“Many kids these days don’t have the opportunity to handle firearms and they are playing these video games and shooting at other people in the game. What I want to do is give them an opportunity to handle one of those firearms in real life and see that it is not a toy, it’s not a game and there is no reset button. On the receiving end, if someone were to ever get shot, they won’t get back up. I want these kids to understand that and respect guns for what they are and know it’s not a toy,” Litton said.
Education through practice is key in Litton’s opinion. During the rifle and clay shoot, instructors work with the children and instructors are stationed at the gun racks. Range safety officers watch students and instructors to ensure the instructors do not become fatigued and lose focus.
“I believe education through practice is the way to go. If you are taught firearms safety hands-on then you are less likely for something like that to happen. That is why I don’t turn any kids away regardless of how old they are at our rifle shoots. Even if they are too young to pull the trigger on the gun, they will pay attention to what the other kids are doing. They are never too young to learn firearm safety,” Litton said.
Litton credits the generosity of the community for the success of the program and the opportunities the program provides to the youth of Orange Beach. Wesley Moore, owner of Alligator Alley approached Litton years ago and offered to host dove hunts for the program. The clay sporting shoot is also held on the grounds.
“Wesley has done this for many years. He is so generous. It’s about the kids and giving them an opportunity to enjoy dove hunting like he got to when he was a kid,” Litton said.
A lot of the firearms that are used are from Litton’s personal collection and are loaned to the program by local hunters. This year, Litton had a hard time securing ammunition for the sporting clay shoot due to lack of available stock. Chris Meyers donated five cases of 410 shells.
According to Litton, all the hard work and coordination of resources is worth it when he sees the smile on a kid’s face as they hit that first sporting clay and see it disappear. This year between 30 to 40 youth participated in the Sporting Clay Shoot and Dove Hunt. The day began with a potluck lunch with the main course cooked by 12-year-old Jack Langston, son of Jonathan Langston. Langston smoked a small pig all night and it was enjoyed by all in attendance. Litton and a group of instructors gave the safety talk while everyone ate lunch. Then the group headed out to the field where four clay target machines were set up.
“After we had the safety talk, it really impressed me how much attention those kids were paying to proper carry position and where their fingers were in relation to the trigger. Those kids were really paying attention to it and working really hard to make sure they didn’t inadvertently point a gun at someone,” Litton said.
Each station was manned by an instructor who spoke with the participant to determine their experience level and determine their dominate eye. Several learned they had been shooting with the wrong eye for years. Once ready, the gun was loaded by the instructor and clay targets started flying in the sky. Even Orange Beach councilwoman, Annette Mitchell took a turn.
After the Sporting Clay Shoot, the group moved out to another field to try their luck with the dove but unfortunately, they were not flying. There’s always next time.