Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to note the model of assault rifle that the teens were using. It is an AR-15.
Kenai Police officer Alex Prins wrapped his arms around officer Jay Sjogren, gripped his hands together and squeezed. Sjogren looked at the five onlooking girls and grinned before lifting his foot and slamming it down on Prins’ black-booted toes. Prins grimaced and then switched positions with Sjogren to demonstrate a cringe-worthy shin-scraping maneuver — several of the girls giggled during the demonstration.
The two officers spent two hours on Thursday teaching the teens how to recognize dangerous situations and escape potential attackers during a session of the ongoing Teens on Target program, a course for teenage girls, at the Snowshoe Gun Club in Kenai. Officers from the Kenai police department come out each year to teach a special personal defense session to the Teens on Target students. During regular sessions, the Teens on Target course teaches firearm safety, handling, and use.
Instructor Elaina Spraker took off her shoes to join the girls practicing self-defense moves on mats laid out on the floor, while her husband Ted Spraker looked on. The Sprakers have been co-teaching Teens on Target and Women on Target, a similar class for adults, since they founded the program in 2008. This year’s class, which has been running since September, has attracted eight regular students interested in learning responsible gun use. Four students are returning after completing the class last year.
Elaina Spraker said that the inspiration for Teens on Target came from a conversation with the couple’s son, now 24, whom she said enjoyed going to the woods to shoot with his friends. Elaina Spraker asked him whether his girlfriend, who sometimes went on the shooting trips, enjoyed it as much as he did.
Her son responded that the girls in the group usually hung back and often seemed intimidated by the guns.
“That’s when the wheels started turning,” she said.
The Sprakers applied for grants from the Friends of the National Rifle Association and sought the partnership of Kenai Safari Club International to begin teaching firearms classes targeted specifically for women and girls. The couple uses their own guns for the class, which is held at the Snowshoe Gun Club shooting range and continues to be funded by grants, Elaina said. In addition to the Sprakers, 6 volunteer instructors lead the class. Ted Spraker said that while some of this year’s students came into the class with experience in shooting, others had never shot before. Now, he said, they have made “unbelievable progress,” and emphasized the class’s focus on safety.
“You don’t really get formal gun safety when you’re learning this from your friends, your brother, or even your parents. They don’t necessarily teach you the principals you need to adhere to, to always be safe. That’s the thing that I really appreciate about these young ladies. Not only are they good shots, but they have the skills to handle (guns) safely.”
In addition to safety, the course includes trigger technique, accuracy practice, shooting from a full range of positions, and a chance to gain experience with a variety of guns. Ted Spraker said that the class begins with shotgun trap-shooting, then progresses to rifles and handguns, and finishes with a course in the AR-15 assault rifle, which Ted Spraker said the girls are “not bashful about shooting.”
“Sometimes the only thing that saves us from running out of ammo is that it gets dark,” Elaina Spraker said.
Matthea Boatwright participated in Teens on Target for the first time this year. She previously belonged to a 4-H shooting club, which she said shot only small caliber rifles and pellet guns. Her favorite guns from the Teens on Target class were pistols, because they are the easiest to handle.
Matthea’s mother Kirsten Boatwright said that the program has helped nurture her daughter’s interest in shooting.
“Her brothers are all involved in shooting sports, so it’s nice for her to have this opportunity,” said Kirsten Boatwright. “She loves being with the other girls, the interaction there. In the (4-H) shooting club, there weren’t any girls her age, and at this age that’s important.”
Kirsten Boatwright attended Thursday’s Teens on Target session for the self-defense presentation by the Kenai Police Department, which the students’ mothers were also invited to take part in.
Sergeant Sjogren said that the self-defense instruction he and Prins gave to the Teens on Target students was “something that could pay back a lifetime of benefits.”
“It’s important to learn the importance of self-defense at an early age, because you can be a victim at any age,” said Sjogren. The class he taught on Thursday included escapes from choke holds, in addition to toe-stomping and shin-kicking technique for escape from bear hugs.
For Elaina Spraker, the instruction she provides through Teens on Target has a psychological as well as practical benefit.
“The true value of this program is female empowerment,” said Elaina Spraker. “You take an adolescent girl, and something very positive happens when they learn the power of firearms.”
She added that being comfortable around guns helps her students be comfortable in the environment they live in.
“Almost everyone in Alaska has a gun, and now these girls know how to use these guns, to be around them and feel comfortable with them,” Spraker said.
Reach Ben Boettger at firstname.lastname@example.org