Earning a Firearms Safety Certificate has, since 1955, been an important rite of passage for more than a million Minnesota youth.
The course, required of youthful hunters age 12-16 who wanted to purchase big game hunting licenses, was created in response to growing numbers of hunting accidents at the time.
In 1990, mandatory certification was expanded to require that anyone born after Dec., 31, 1979, successfully complete the course to purchase any Minnesota hunting license.
Rural Nicollet County farmer Rick Meuer can remember how, as a young, enthusiastic hunter in 1960, he looked forward to earning the coveted gun safety patch.
“The home farm was on the south end Horseshoe Lake,” he said. “After I would finish any chores, I would hunt every chance I got. It was a big part of my life.”
So when he turned 12 in 1960, the requisite age to be able to enroll, he signed up for a class offered by the Nicollet Conservation Club.
Then, as now, the club actively promoted hunter education and championed conservation causes.
“I couldn’t wait to take it,” Meuer said. “It was taught by club members Louie and Ralph Compart above the Opera House Bar.”
More than a half-century of hunting seasons have passed since he earned his patch and Meuer remains an enthusiastic sportsman with a particular passion for spring turkey hunting, an opportunity that never existed during his youth.
He also has been a long-time certified instructor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Firearms Safety Program.
In 1972, as a 24-year-old member of the Nicollet Conservation Club, he was certified as a volunteer instructor and for the last 40 years, has preached the gospel of firearms safety to hundreds of area youngsters.
Indeed, anyone age 62 or younger who earned his or her certificate by way of classes offered through the club had Meuer as an instructor.
“I taught all of the Ottos, all of the Zinses,” he said, rattling off the names of a few local families. By his own conservative estimates, he has had a hand in teaching more than 750 youngsters safe gun handling.
He also has assisted in teaching Advanced Hunter Education classes that periodically have been held.
Meuer said that in the early days, the firearms safety classes were comprised mostly of boys. “There might be a couple of girls once in a while, but mostly boys,” he said. “By the 80s and 90s, it was about a 50-50 split.”
The early classes, Meuer said, put the most emphasis on safe gun handling, game laws and survival skills but gradually evolved to involve hunter ethics and issues like trespassing.
Teaching methods also changed from instructors droning in front of a classroom to relying on more videos and other teaching presentations.
Not that keeping the young hunters’ attention during the classes was ever a problem.
“They were always pretty well-behaved, they wanted to be there,” he said. “It wasn’t like being an English teacher or math teacher.”
Dale VanThuyne, who in the early 1990s took over the core duties of teaching the class from Meuer, agrees but with a qualification.
“There wasn’t going to be a whole lot of monkey business going on when he was teaching the class,” VanThuyne said. “He was firm but fair.”
Although other volunteer instructors now teach the core curriculum, Meuer has remained involved, mainly as field day supervisor, a day when excited youngsters finally get to handle and shoot firearms at a gun range
Minnesota DNR Conservation Officer Chris Howe, whose station includes Nicollet County, recently presented Meuer with an award to recognize his 40 years of volunteer work as a certified firearms safety instructor.
Howe said that Meuer and all instructors are all volunteers.
“To dedicate 40 years to the program, that is a pretty substantial investment” he said.
“I’m aware of only one 50-year award and that wasn’t in my station area,” he said. “This was the first 40-year award I have ever given.”
While four decades is a lot of water beneath the bridge, a lot of evenings away from home, Meuer says it really wasn’t much work thanks to the support of the Nicollet Conservation Club and a cadre of dedicated volunteers willing to help.
“I just enjoyed doing it,” he said. “I’d do it all over again.”
John Cross is a Free Press staff writer. Contact him at 344-6376 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.