Sean Donato is too young to drive, drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes or vote. Yet the 13-year-old has been using a firearm for a year.
A year 8 student at St Stanislaus' College in Bathurst, Sean practises target shooting as well as hunting rabbits, foxes, pigs and goats.
"I've learned about safety and responsibility and handling the firearms and all that," he said. "And I like shooting with my dad and get to spend time with him in the bush, learning about bushcraft, doing camping and cooking, animals and vegetation and all that."
Sean's older brother Matthew also has a minor's permit, which allows children aged 12 and above to use firearms under supervision, although "he's not so keen, to be honest", according to their father, Philip Donato, the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party MP for Orange.
But Mr Donato's party would be "happy" for 10-year-olds to handle guns, and introduce shooting as an elective school subject.
"It's a healthy family activity," Mr Donato said. "It's not gender specific. Going out, spending some time with your family in the outdoors, bonding with your kids, is a fantastic opportunity.
"It's far better they learn how to use firearms appropriately in that sort of manner as opposed to watching movies and playing video games."
Sean Donato is one of a rapidly increasing number of children in NSW who hold a minor's permit to possess and use firearms under the supervision of a firearms licence holder.
A spokeswoman for NSW Police Minister Troy Grant said 7258 minors permits had been issued as of July 29 – 3010 minors permits were issued in 2009-10, according to figures released by NSW Police.
Twelve public high schools in NSW, as well as some independent schools, also offer shooting as a sport for students.
However, the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party wants primary school-aged students to be allowed to use firearms – a position also advocated by the NSW division of the Sporting Shooters Association of Australia.
"The current minimum age of 12 years restricts access to the sport and limits the ability of interested minors to develop their skills," said Diana Melham, the SSAA NSW's executive director.
Mr Donato's colleague in the NSW Legislative Council, Robert Borsak, said: "The Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party would be happy to see minor's permits for firearms use to be reduced from 12 years of age to 10 years."
However, the government is not in favour.
"The NSW Government has no intention of changing the current law regarding the possession and use of firearms under a minor's permit," the Police Minister's spokeswoman said.
NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge said children should not be given access to guns: "We don't put a 12-year-old behind the wheel of a car and we shouldn't put a 12-year-old on the trigger of a hunting rifle."
Mr Shoebridge said a special firearms permit could be considered for children living in rural areas: "There is scope for considering a special permit for children aged 16 years and above who live on a rural property and require a firearm in the farm work they do, under supervision of their parents."
Lobby group Gun Control Australia also wants minors permits abolished. GCA chairwoman Samantha Lee criticised what she characterised as the gun lobby's argument that the use of firearms at a young age makes children more safe.
"To see the flaws in this argument you just have to apply it to driving or cigarette smoking," she said. "Normalising an action from a young age doesn't equate to safety, in fact, when it comes to firearms it has the complete opposite effect and provides a false sense of security."
Ms Lee expressed concern about the potential for school shootings. She said gun ownership in Australia was increasing and "combined with a dismantling of our gun laws and large numbers of guns being stolen from residential homes, there is a concern that Australia will again see a rise in gun violence and young people".
The GCA website states that minors permits are a breach of the 1996 Port Arthur Firearm Agreement: "This agreement only allows those 18 years and above to possess or own a firearm."
However, a NSW Police spokesman said minors permits were not in breach of the agreement: "It addresses the age for licences and puts this at 18 years." He added: "Supervision of minor[s] is strictly enforced by clubs and ranges – parent allows a minor to shoot on their own property under supervision."
The New England Girls School in Armidale offers target rifle shooting to students aged 12 and over, who compete in the Fiona Reynolds All Schools Match and shoot alongside other mainly private boys' schools in the Athletic Association of Great Public Schools of NSW Rifle Shooting Premiership.
David Rose, the master-in-charge of the New England Girls' School Rifle Club, said target rifle shooting was age and gender neutral.
"The sport suits both individual and team inclined individuals, does not require exceptional fitness or eyesight. Indeed most physical disabilities can be accommodated."
He said the girls enjoyed being part of a traditional Australian sport "existing in this country about as long as cricket".
Mr Rose said he believed a permit was "somewhat superfluous" for a shooting range where was already adult supervision and no tolerance of unsafe practices.
"In my experience, I've never had a single student not follow the rules, accept advice and generally be safe while developing their shooting skills," he said. "I'm very comfortable on a range with students from any school we interact with."
But he said the stringent safety standards on ranges was not always replicated on farms or in private homes. "In reality, kids do go shooting (a) without a permit or (b) with a permit, but no supervising adult."
Outside of schools, the SSAA runs a "junior development program" for children aged 12 years and above at St Marys Indoor Shooting Centre in western Sydney. The NSW government's Office of Sport website promotes the Sydney International Shooting Centre, which runs firearms courses for children.
Mr Shoebridge said shooting should not be part of any school curriculum: "With all the possible sports available to children, including ones that actually get children out and about and being physically active, there is no need at all to be giving them guns at school."
In contrast, Mr Borsak said: "We are in favour of introducing firearms safety training and practical range experience as an approved school elective subject, and note that this is already the case in many schools across New South Wales."
Lowering the age for a minor's permit to 10 would not permit primary schoolchildren to buy a firearm, Mr Borsak said. "A minor's permit does not authorise the acquisition of firearms, and these can only be acquired, owned and stored by an adult who has both a firearms licence and a permit to acquire the firearm in question – and rightly so."
Ms Melham said the SSAA NSW supported shooting as a school sport, calling it one of the "safest sporting activities".
"Shooting is an Olympic and Commonwealth Games sport that requires skill and self-discipline as well as teaching responsibility and respect as a result of its very strong safety culture," she said. "Participation in the shooting sports also assists in the development of social skills and confidence."
(Article sourced from the Sydney Morning Herald)
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