Legislation introduced by North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, along with fellow Sens. John Cornyn (R-Tx) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) that would preserve and protect funding for longtime high school programs and activities like archery and hunting safety passed Wednesday unanimously in the Senate, passed Tuesday in the House and now heads to President Biden’s desk.

The Protecting Hunting Heritage and Education Act would amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) to clarify that the prohibition of the use of federal education funds for certain weapons does not apply to the use of such weapons in extracurricular programs such as archery, hunting, other shooting sports or culinary arts.

It also clarifies that students may continue to have access to those educational enrichment programs under the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act (BSCA).

The law, passed in 2022, tightened restrictions around gun purchases after the Robb Elementary School Shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in May of that year.

The law amended the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to prohibit schools from using federal education funds to purchase “dangerous weapons” for use in schools.

In July, the Department of Education withheld federal funding from hunting and archery programs in schools, citing BSCA.

“The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act was a good faith effort to provide historic funding for mental health, harden safety at schools across the country, and reduce violence while protecting the Second Amendment rights of every law-abiding American,” Tillis said in a press release. “The Biden Administration’s partisan interpretation of BSCA to eliminate hunting education in schools is a slap in the face to millions of Americans, particularly in rural areas, and discourages future bipartisan cooperation in Congress when an administration acts in bad faith when implementing laws.”

The legislation builds on a recent letter Tillis led with 17 of his Senate colleagues urging U.S. Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to implement BSCA as Congress intended and restore federal funding for educational activities like hunting and archery.

He also led a letter with 16 of his Senate colleagues urging the leadership of the Senate Committee on Appropriations to clarify that school districts may continue to use their ESEA funding to provide educational enrichment programs and activities, including hunting, outdoor, archery, and culinary education, in the FY24 Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies appropriations bill. 

archery and rifle club sports

Over 2,500 high schools across the U.S. have a marksmanship program affiliated with them, including 140 in North Carolina as of 2016. In 2018, North Carolina voters approved an amendment to the state Constitution protecting the right to hunt and fish.

Sports like archery and rifle clubs have long been popular in high schools across the country. East Stroudsburg High School South, East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, notes on its website the sport of target rifle shooting on school-supported rifle teams and clubs began as early as the 1950s. 

Students used to bring their own rifles to school, which were kept unloaded in lockers that were locked or storage rooms. Many were hunters, possibly providing food for their dinner tables. “This was a way of life and friendly competition,” the website says. Today, single-shot target rifles are no longer brought in from home but are stored in locked vaults at the school, accessible only by trained NRA Certified Firearms Instructors.

Rifle clubs remain popular today despite concerns about gun violence. 

Smithfield Selma High School, Smithfield, has a shooting range that is used for the air rifle Civilian Marksmanship Program and is part of the Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program.

The CMP says it promotes “firearms safety, and marksmanship training for citizens with an emphasis on youth” and the Navy program’s website says it develops leadership potential and promotes higher education, high school completion, and community service among its benefits.

A July article from Forbes.com also points out that defunding such programs will only contribute to the mental health crisis teens have faced since the shutdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The article says a recent Pew study shows that 70% of teens say anxiety and depression are major problems, with one in three high school students seriously considering suicide, according to a 2021 CDC report.

Other reports show that extracurricular activities help instill a sense of belonging, improve social development, and provide opportunities to develop leadership skills, cooperation, and peer interaction.

Tillis rebukes Biden Administration

Tillis said he encouraged everyone, even those who do not want to own a gun, to take a hunter’s safety course. He said it teaches how to handle a gun safely, conservation, and wildlife stewardship. Archery courses, he said, do the same. 

Source: U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-NC, YouTube page.

Tillis chastised the Biden Administration, saying the only reason the Senate was voting on the legislation Wednesday and why the House had to vote on it as well was because somebody in the Administration wanted to play politics. He said doing so is dangerous,

“Let me tell you why that’s dangerous,” he said. “Because it makes people like me question whether or not I should trust the Administration to implement a bill in the manner that we intended. If I’m going to get a gotcha at the end for something like this, what encourages me to do it again?” 

Tillis said he hopes the Administration recognizes that some in Congress are “sick of the polarizing environment in Washington.”

“Some of us are willing to work on a bipartisan basis to make things different, but we have to have a willing and trusted partner down the street,” he said. “This rights the wrong now, but I hope the Administration recognizes in the future, if you want to see more people like me stick our neck out for things that need to be done, you better behave differently.”