Bang! Bang! Bang!
The loud, piercing sound interrupts the otherwise-quiet West Philadelphia morning as eight Penn students begin their day at the firing range.
As Brady Sullivan lines up a target with his pistol in hand, it’s clear that he’s no beginner. His legs spread about a foot-and-a-half wide in an athletic stance, Sullivan — who is donning a blue National Rifle Association hat — takes aim down the lane.
Staring intently at the target about six yards in front of him, he pulls the trigger.
Sullivan, a College senior, says he’s been shooting “since I was big enough to hold a gun.” Over the past few years, he’s brought his passion for shooting to campus through the Penn Shooting Club, where he currently serves as president.
Founded in 2009 as a relatively small group, Penn Shooting Club has seen its membership increase dramatically over a nearly four-year span. Today, the organization has about 600 students on its email listserv — and it’s continuing to grow.
“When you have an activity like shooting that sells itself, it’s a lot easier to get buy-in from students,” said 2012 College graduate Cille Kissel, the club’s founder.
In recent weeks, however, some Penn Shooting Club members have found themselves in the crosshairs of a national debate over gun control — a debate that is expected to take a major turn this week as Vice President Joe Biden’s task force on gun violence is set to publicly unveil a series of recommendations in the wake of last month’s Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
The task force recommendations will likely include some form of an assault weapons ban, among other strong calls for more gun control legislation nationwide.
“I think what we’re hearing today is very much a knee-jerk reaction driven by emotion,” Kissel said. “The people who are on the far left want to take guns completely out of circulation.… If that happened, it would be terrible for our entire fabric of society.”
Taking aim at Penn
While Penn Shooting Club has a handful of gun owners and Second Amendment advocates among its members, most in the group are relative novices when it comes to shooting.
Sullivan described the club as casual and recreational, with a special emphasis on teaching members proper shooting safety techniques. The group generally travels to a range in Yeadon, Pa. — about a 20-minute drive from campus — once a month to shoot.
“At Penn, so many people haven’t shot a gun, and sometimes those people might form opinions about guns without that experience,” said Engineering junior Keelen Collins, the captain of the club’s clay team — a form of competitive shooting — and a member of Penn’s Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps program. “My opinion is that you should be informed before you make a decision, and there’s no better source of information on guns than having shot one yourself.”
An outing to the range on Sunday was a prime example of the varying experience levels in Penn Shooting Club. While club officers like Sullivan brought years of shooting experience with them, the vast majority of others at the range were beginners.
“I’ve been meaning to try this for a long time,” College junior Johanna Villanueva, a first-time shooter, said. “It was definitely fun — a good stress reliever.”
Although Villanueva does not describe herself as particularly active on Second Amendment issues, she acknowledged that spending time at the range could not help but serve as a reminder of some of the fallout from Sandy Hook.
Despite Penn Shooting Club’s avoidance of political activism as an organization — focusing instead on fostering shooting as a hobby — it has occasionally brought NRA representatives to discuss Second Amendment and gun safety issues on campus.
Krista Cupp, who coordinates NRA University — a seminar for college students interested in learning about the NRA — called Penn Shooting Club’s efforts to bring in NRA speakers “unmatched by any group out there.”
Over the past two years, Penn Shooting Club has hosted three NRA U events.
“The NRA is one of the oldest, most powerful lobbies in the country,” Sullivan, an NRA member himself, said. “Love them or hate them, the NRA is really good at what they do.”
A changing campus
Though Penn Shooting Club is still relatively young on campus, shooting at the University is hardly a new activity.
The history of competitive shooting at Penn can be traced back to the 1880s, when the University’s first gun club was formed. Through the 1950s, the north arcade of Franklin Field played host to an indoor shooting range where student riflery teams practiced.
However, shooting clubs were largely absent from campus in the decades before the formation of Penn Shooting Club. Kissel founded the group in 2009 as a way to fill a “void” that had been felt on campus, she said.
Early on in the club’s existence, College senior and publicity manager Lara Maggs said, it was not uncommon for group members to receive criticism for their perceived beliefs — sometimes attracting “dirty looks” from passers-by on Locust Walk, for instance.
“I think there’s definitely been times where, in certain classes, I’ve had to bite my tongue a bit because universities like Penn are inherently very liberal institutions,” said Maggs, who is also an NRA member and is looking to become a gun owner in the near future. “There have definitely been instances where I’ve felt that I couldn’t say something to the extent that I wanted [to].”
Kissel agreed that the club has faced opposition, but said that, in the vast majority of instances, Penn has provided a “very healthy setting” for discussion and debate.
From her sophomore year on, Kissel — an NRA member and gun owner herself — kept a gun at her off-campus house on 40th and Walnut streets.
Although Penn prohibits the possession of all firearms on campus by non-law enforcement officials, Kissel said she felt it was necessary to have a gun for protection while living in West Philadelphia. Throughout her time at the University, Kissel kept the gun locked in her closet, never bringing it onto campus.
For its part, the NRA disagrees with Penn’s firearm possession policies.
“A responsible student who’s 21 years or older should be able to protect themselves while they’re in a college classroom,” Cupp said. “We believe that’s a fundamental right.”
A Sandy Hook dialogue
This disagreement over gun possession aside, Penn has found itself amidst the throes of the broader gun control debate over the past several weeks.
On Jan. 2, President Amy Gutmann — along with the 11-member executive committee of the Association of American Universities — signed a letter calling for stronger gun control legislation in response to recent shootings.
While those calling for more gun control have been vocal on the national stage, Penn Shooting Club members are not shying away from making their views heard.
“It’s a highly emotional debate right now, and I think everyone needs to take a step back and view it as a more intellectual or policy issue,” Maggs said.
Maggs added that she doubts the effectiveness of further gun control legislation, seeing that “there’s always going to be a black market, and there’s always going to be a way to get around [gun registration laws].”
Moving forward, she hopes that the national discourse will evolve into more of a discussion about how to improve mental health resources.
“I would say that Washington is pretty good about making problems and not so good at making solutions,” Sullivan said of a potential legislative response to gun violence. “I question whether the actions of a criminal are necessarily reasonable grounds for altering or eroding the [Second Amendment] rights of mine.”
Engineering senior Andrew Glace, Penn Shooting Club’s events coordinator, emphasized the need for what he sees as a common-sense approach to the problem.
“I’d encourage personal responsibility between a gun shop owner and someone who they’re selling to,” Glace said. “If somebody walks into your store and the first gun they want to buy is an assault weapon, then that has to raise some red flags.”
For his part, Collins sees gun violence as more of a reflection of individual actions — not as a sign of flaws in firearm access laws.
“It’s terrible that there’s that kind of evil in the world, but I believe the cruelty and evil in this situation lies solely in the actor,” he said.
While some Penn Shooting Club officers like Collins and Sullivan have strong individual views on gun control issues, both emphasized that most club members are involved with the group simply to learn about some of the basics of shooting.
“We’re still very young, and we’re doing as much as we can to keep growing,” Sullivan said. “I think we have a lot of momentum, and we want to keep that going.”