Minnesota helped launch a nationwide boom in youth trap shooting. And the NRA is funding.

ALEXANDRIA — On opening day of the Minnesota State High School Clay Target League championship, the Alexandria Shooting Park sounds like a very loud batch of popcorn. Squads of five teammates, lined up in a row, fire shotguns at blaze-orange discs streaking across the sky. "Pop!" "Pop" "Pop! Pop! Pop!" The nine-day event, which has more than 8,000 competitors, is billed as the largest trap-shooting tournament in the country.

Clay-target shooting, a longtime Olympic sport, includes four disciplines, of which trap is most popular. Though it's an individual sport, shooting in teams has a social aspect. "It's like golf only louder," says John Nelson, who oversees the tournament as president of the Eagan-based USA Clay Target League and its Minnesota chapter.

USA Clay Target League is the largest youth clay-target shooting organization in the country, with more than 46,000 members in grades 6-12. Roughly 12,000 of those participants are in Minnesota, which has teams in about 350 of its 500 or so high schools. (Football, the state's largest high-school sport, has around 20,000 participants; boys and girls hockey has 8,000)

In just two decades, clay target has become one of the country's fastest-growing high-school sports. And Minnesota is, arguably, the epicenter of youth trap's nationwide boom.

Students say they develop skills and friendships through the sport. But they aren't the only ones benefitting from the league's explosive growth. Retailers sell more firearms and ammunition (league participants go through 350,000 cases annually) — and conservation groups get a cut of the tax on those purchases.

More controversially, the National Rifle Association stands to bolster its ranks with youth trap shooters by donating millions to the sport, unnerving advocates of gun-violence prevention.

Targeting youth

Though Minnesota has a strong hunting and recreational-shooting culture, the proliferation of youth trap was the vision of a local adman, Jim Sable. After he retired, about 20 years ago, Sable was at the Plymouth Gun Club when a shipment of targets arrived by semitrailer. The driver asked if Sable could round up a few young guys to help unload. Then in his 60s, Sable was one of the young guys.

Hoping to recruit younger members, Sable volunteered as a mentor and was matched with a 14-year-old girl who had expressed interest in clay-target shooting. She helped form Orono's first trapshooting team. Then Sable convinced Wayzata to field a team so the two groups could compete.

Sable enlisted Nelson, a former ad agency colleague, to assist him in expanding the sport. By 2008, they'd formed the Minnesota State High School Clay Target League, to help schools start teams and manage competitions.

The league gave schools the playbook for bringing together students, coaches, a gun club, safety certification, and insurance. It also facilitated "virtual" competitions (teams shoot independently at gun clubs and compare scores). "Our approach was: We want this to look and smell and taste like a high-school sport," Nelson said. "We want kids to letter. We want kids to be recognized in the yearbook."

Minnesota became the first state to have its high school league endorse clay-target shooting, which lent the sport credibility among wary school administrators. "If you go in and say, 'I have a program that's gonna involve kids and guns and schools,' you get a lot of doors closed on you," Nelson recalled.

Pitching the sport

To build the sport, Sable and Nelson pitched clay-target shooting's inclusivity. Teams only need five students and are not gender segregated; the sport accommodates a wide range of body types and physical abilities; there are no cuts or benchwarmers; and participants cut across cliques.

"You don't have to be the fastest, the strongest, the tallest," Nelson explained. "You could have an offensive lineman from the football team next to a girl on the dance team next to somebody on the debate team next to somebody in a wheelchair."

Recreational shooting reaches kids who don't participate in other teams. For nearly 40% of league members, clay target is their only school-sponsored sport.

Trap doesn't require school facilities, and team members' average participation fees are between $200-$300 a season (mostly for ammo). And — crucially — the league has an impeccable safety record. So far, it has reported no injuries, unheard of in youth sports, which cause a handful of deaths in the U.S. each year, primarily due to football injuries.

By 2012, Sable and Nelson created the USA Clay Target League, an umbrella organization for bringing high school leagues to other states. It has since added college and homeschool divisions.

At the tournament

There's a fair-like atmosphere at the Alexandria tournament, with throngs of fans and tented booths. Vendors sell ammo jewelry and coonskin caps. Military and law enforcement officers recruit with battering rams, pull-up bars and a howitzer. The smell of gunpowder mingles with kettle corn and cheese curds. Competitors carry shotguns slung over one shoulder as casually as a backpack.

Recreational shooting is common in Comfrey, in southwest Minnesota, where Lacey Simon, 15, and Zoe Evers, 16, live. Though there are only around 100 students at their K-12 school, it fields a trap team of about 20. The youngest teammate fits right in, the girls say, and is actually quite a good shot. "He's a 6th grader and he's better than us," Simon admits.

Trap isn't just a rural thing, though urban teams tend to be smaller and lower-profile. Competitors from Washburn, the only Minneapolis Public School with a team, say many classmates have never heard of trap — some have never seen a gun. "They say, 'What? You shoot guns? What? It's for the school?'" says Nick Bell, 17.

His teammates say they feel some stigma ("We're kind of the oddballs," one says; "People are a little weirded out," another adds), but not enough to dissuade them from participating in a sport they love. Bell's mother was initially resistant to him shooting trap. "It's hard for her to let me do it, but she puts up with it because it's something I want to do," he said.

The 11-member team at Breck, a private school in Golden Valley, is coached by Kerry Marshall, a kindergarten teacher. Marshall said one student considered joining but decided that it went against their political stance on guns. "That's exactly the kind of kid who should do it," she said. "It gives you a different view."

Inherent risk

Close to 40% of students who join the USA Clay Target League haven't previously taken firearm safety training. This cohort may not have otherwise picked up a gun were it not for the school trap team. That means more young people are learning gun safety. But it also adds more firearm owners to a country awash in some 400 million guns the leading cause of death for children.

Though USA Clay Target doesn't promote Second Amendment rights, it has received support from the NRA Foundation ($39,000 in 2021, per IRS 990 filings). In recent years, the foundation has given millions in cash and in-kind donations to youth shooting-sports organizations nationwide, including, in 2019, more than $100,000 to Minnesota groups.

The NRA's influence concerns Kris Brown, president of Brady, the national gun-violence prevention group. "I look at anything funded by the National Rifle Association with a jaundiced eye, because about 30 years ago they stopped talking publicly about any risks associated with firearms," she said. "In this country, suicide with a firearm is at a 40-year high, and that is particularly true with teenagers."

To Nelson, people who use guns responsibly are unfairly linked to those who wield them for harm. "We have some people in this world that think we are creating the next generation of mass murderers," he said. "They try to connect an athlete that's shooting a clay target to some lunatic that is shooting people in a school environment."

Moving the sport into virtual reality would eliminate its equipment's inherent risk. But computer-simulated target shooting is boring, Nelson said, because it lacks the real thing's visceral thrill.

"You don't feel the shotgun," he said. "You don't have any of the conditions that you're fighting with in nature."

"To see a target explode is just awesome," he added, sounding a lot like the kids he recruits.