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ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Tom Milliron figures Juneau school children are going to encounter guns one way or another, whether venturing armed into nearby wilderness or visiting the home of a friend.

Better they learn how to handle a firearm safely than to hurt themselves through ignorance, he says.

Milliron is principal of one of Juneau's two middle schools. Sixth-graders under his care last month completed an outdoor education course that included instruction in safe handling of guns and firing rounds from .22-caliber rifles. For some children, it was the first time they'd touched a gun.

In gun-happy Alaska, teaching children how to safely handle firearms is just common sense, Milliron said. "Kids ought to be approached from a solid educational perspective and not discover guns on their own," Milliron said.

Juneau, population 31,193, can be reached only by water or air. It's in the heart of America's largest national forest, the Tongass.

Juneau's front yard is the Inside Passage, the protected Pacific waters off Alaska's Panhandle. Its backyard is the Juneau Icefield, a 1,500-square-mile blanket of ice that feeds 38 glaciers. Most residents hike, ski, fish, hunt or kayak.

"That's what makes it worth it," Milliron said of living in temperate rain forest. "We certainly don't live here for the weather."

Sitka blacktail deer abound in the forest. Black bears often wander into the city during seasonal migrations, stopping to dine on garbage or bird seed if residents leave them unprotected. Grizzly bears are kings of the forest, especially on nearby islands.

"A lot of people who aren't hunters carry firearms for that reason," Milliron said.

Milliron used to teach in Cube Cove, a logging camp on Admiralty Island. Outdoor education was crucial in such a wild setting, he said. He took the job at Juneau's Floyd Dryden Middle School eight years ago and found volunteers who wanted firearm education in public schools, including Tom Coate.

More than two decades ago, Coate had taught his 10-year-old son, Tobin, how to safely handle guns before they went waterfowl hunting. Then his son's friends wanted to go too. They were "dumber than a brick" about gun safety, Coate said.

He helped promote hunter safety programs in a 4-H club, then at rural village schools, and starting in 2000, at the Juneau middle school. About 1,200 students have taken the course.

The program has provided a counterbalance to the portrayal of guns on "the idiot tube," Coate said.

"What we're trying to do is mitigate the onslaught of very bad habits that cause needless deaths and needless accidents," Coate said.

Guns are simply a way of life in Southeast Alaska, Milliron and Coate said.

"For every home that doesn't have a firearm it in, there are 25 that do," Coate said.

Sixth grade, when students are still in awe of teachers, is the perfect setting to teach gun safety, Milliron said.

"In sixth grade, we can get kids to internalize the need to practice safety around firearms," he said. "They're willing to listen to instructors and take to heart what instructors tell them."

As part of their outdoors education, students take the standard state of Alaska hunter safety education course. After safety lessons, they take a "shoot-don't shoot" field course, deciding whether it would have been safe to discharge a weapon at an animal simulated by a silhouette.

They also must demonstrate proficiency in firing a weapon, shooting 20 rounds from .22-caliber rifles at Juneau's indoor firing range.

Taylor Daniels, 11, learned she should never direct a muzzle at another person and never shoot across a highway. She learned that keeping a rifle's action open will render it inoperative, and that the barrel wiggles far less if she's kneeling instead of standing when she shoots.

Phillip Fenumiai, 12, said he felt confident he can handle a rifle.

"If someone asked me, I could do the proper things and learn how to keep myself safe and make sure I'm handling it safely," he said.

The program has not been adopted at the city's other middle school.

"I think the administrators feeling on it was that that was something we felt families would support rather than school," said Barb Mecum, principal of Dzantik'i Heeni Middle school.

But even gun control advocates don't have much reaction to programs that teach gun safety, such as the one in Juneau.

"We generally don't have much of a problem with them as long as the actual firing of weapons is off campus and there's the appropriate law enforcement, professional trainers, present," said Peter Hamm, communications director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

"We think it's far better that people know how to safely handle a firearm than not know," he said.

Sixth grade is an appropriate age for training, as long as parents approve, he said.

Besides gun safety, children took lessons on appropriate outdoor clothing, wildlife conservation, and reading a compass and a topographical map. They learned hunting ethics and meat care -- turning Bullwinkle into an entree.

Milliron says the class does not try to turn the sixth graders into little hunters. If they do, it's a good, healthy activity that will last a lifetime, he said.

Milliron said students love the program. "It's education that's real life. It's not, 'Why am I learning this,"' he said.

"They won't remember the first time they learned to divide a polynomial, but they will remember the first time they fired a rifle and learned firearm safety," he said.

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I love Alaska's approach to guns and gun safety. I think they should be a model for the rest of the country, instead of NY and CA.
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