Getting kids into hunting is a big focus right now as hunters and department of natural resource organizations around the country try to stem the decline that has been seen in hunting license sales over the years.

Step one of that is getting those kids firearm safety certified. Minnesota requires anyone born after Dec. 31, 1979 to have a firearm safety certificate to purchase a hunting license. Well over 100 people every year go through the training in the Alexandria area.

Thanks to some local outdoor groups coming together, those participants will have new and safer firearms to work with. The Viking Sportsmen, Alexandria chapter of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association and the Carlos Rod and Gun Club all banded together to donate almost $2,300 for the purchase of 12 .22-caliber rifles and a hard case to store them in that will be used during field training at the end of each course. Geneva Capital in Alexandria also donated money to the Viking Sportsmen that was earmarked for this purchase.

“It’s essential,” area DNR conservation officer Mitch Lawler said of getting the new .22 rifles. “It’s much safer as a program to bring firearms we know are kept safe, kept unloaded, kept in good working condition. To have good, safe, new firearms is awesome.”

The .22’s that were used prior to this purchase were between 25-30 years old, 17-year Alexandria area firearm safety instructor Jeff Parkin said. A lot of rounds were fired through those over the course of the training process.

“They were getting worn out,” Parkin said. “A lot of maintenance going on with them. It was real important to get these (new) guns in.”

Parkin said the guns that were purchased will also help fit those going through the safety courses much better. There are some adults who take part, along with older kids, and of the 12 new .22’s purchased, four of those are single-shot, bolt-action Savages that are standard size. The other eight are Savage Rascals, which is a youth model single-shot, bolt-action .22 that is better suited for the many younger kids who take part in the field training.

Youth ages 11-17 have the option of taking a 12-hour online course for their gun safety.

Many kids go the online route instead of attending the 12 hours in a classroom setting, but attending a field day is required for kids that age in order to get certified.

Those 18 and older can take an online class and are not required to attend a field day, but have the option if they want additional hands-on training.

Lawler does not instruct any of the classroom settings locally, but he is required to speak to each class that comes through them in the Alexandria program. He also goes to each field day and safely stores the firearms that are used in the area for that final training.

Lawler saw a need for new firearms in order to assure a safe gun for participants to use, and he says local groups were eager to step up for the purchase.

“It’s unbelievable to have the support of these clubs,” Lawler said. “It’s not that I had to ask two or three times. I brought it up once to these groups and they were more than willing to cover the cost. (The guns) don’t leave the Alexandria area. They don’t go to different parts of the state. They stay right here in my work station and serve the kids of the classes in this area.”

Funding a project like this to help out local youth is something that fits right in with the model that many area outdoor groups are going with.

“Our focus is on youth right now, and that’s the reason we put on the youth day,” Viking Sportsmen president Gene Sullivan said. “When (Lawler) said that they needed some guns for teaching gun safety, that’s one of the first steps is to get your training. Our whole deal is train the kids and keep them going.”

The Youth Outdoor Activity Day that Sullivan referenced is hosted by the Viking Sportsmen and the Douglas County chapter of Pheasants Forever.

The youth day is coming off its fifth year, and drew 2,212 kids on Aug. 26, 2018. That event, which will be held this year on Aug. 25 at the Alexandria Shooting Park, had 47 outdoor stations that ran the gamut from hunting and fishing themed to an ATV course, rock climbing wall, campfire building, orienteering, mountain biking and more. All of it is free while being funded and staffed by businesses, organizations and outdoor groups.

“We try to help everybody out, but our main focus is on youth,” Sullivan said. “That’s what we try to utilize our funds for. Without groups like the Minnesota Deer Hunters and Carlos Rod and Gun, we wouldn’t have a youth outdoor activity day. It wouldn’t come together.”

Outdoor groups in the area have a history of working together on a number of issues. Walleye stocking on area lakes, the youth day and now the purchasing of new firearms for the gun safety program have all benefited from a collaborative effort.

“I feel it’s really beneficial,” Dwayne Waldorf of the Carlos Rod and Gun Club said. “If it wasn’t for some of the other organizations, we probably wouldn’t be involved in some of this. Not that we wouldn’t want to be, but it’s a joint venture. One group’s involved with it, and we’re trying to help that work a little better.”

In the end, all the groups are in this for the same reason. That’s getting more people outdoors.

“What we’re seeing is fishing licenses are staying pretty steady, but hunting-license numbers are going down,” Mark Nohre of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association said. “By doing this with the firearm safety, being involved with the high school trap shooting -- the last number I saw is 81 percent of the high school trap shooters bought hunting licenses. That should trend this number of hunters back up in a more favorable manner.”