Far away from Gun Owners’ Lobby Day and Springfield rallies roiling with concealed carry proponents, members of local gun clubs meet to focus on the sport beneath the controversy.
At the McHenry Sportsmen’s Club in Johnsburg, groups of five press shotguns against their shoulders, preparing to take aim.
One by one they yell “pull!” Then a 4-inch orange clay target flies out at 40 mph, away from the shooter taking aim from 30 to 40 yards away.
When there’s a hit, the biodegradable target shatters and falls to the earth.
The shooters then reload, pulling a shell from a net clipped to their waist like a tool belt.
Elaine Marciniak is the president of the McHenry Sportsmen’s Club, which has been in the county for 50 years.
She said people join the club for the sport of trap shooting and the ability to practice for an upcoming hunting season.
“It is a skill,” Marciniak said.
A handful of gun clubs in the area provide a safe place for gun owners to practice shooting, participate in friendly competition and enjoy some camaraderie.
“We’re just here for the enjoyment,” said Jim Wolff, who is on the board of directors for the McHenry Sportsmen’s Club. “We’re not politically active in the club. One of the things we really don’t discuss too much is politics.”
Wolff said people at the club look out for each other and offer friendly pointers, such as noting when a peer is shooting too high or too low.
“We’re always coaching each other and helping each other,” Wolff said.
The McHenry Sportsmen’s Club allows people to use its facility for gun and hunter safety education courses. Club members are very strict about safety.
Shotguns must be breached open whenever not on the range. A shell can’t be loaded into a weapon unless it’s the person’s turn to shoot. The shotgun has to be pointed down, and people have to wear ear and eye protection.
Any unsafe act can get a person kicked out, Wolff said.
The club is open for youngsters to take gun safety courses. And the club hosts hunter safety courses that act as refresher courses for experienced gun owners.
During January and February, participants can join in a jack rabbit tournament with other clubs in northern Illinois.
Each week, members travel from one club’s home site to another and play for a small pot of money.
People receive money based on how well they shoot 50 targets.
“We try to spread it around ... nobody is going to get rich,” said Chuck Sandlin, the club’s trap chairman. “The point is to have fun and have a bit of competition.”
“We try build a fun environment where they can shoot,” Sandlin added. “They can be serious about it. ... We have a bunch that are just having fun. They just like to shoot to see how they can do.”
There aren’t many clubs in the county, and opening a new club or range, or expanding a range, can be difficult, Marciniak said. It would include notifying nearby residents or property owners and gaining approval from zoning boards.
“It’s pretty costly ... to go through finding the property,” Marciniak said. “It does go under a lot of scrutiny.”
Steve Stanek of McHenry is a member of the McHenry Rifle Club Team and shoots in the Illinois-Wisconsin Border Pistol League.
He shoots one-handed with pistols and has been around guns since he was a child.
Stanek said the McHenry Rifle Club is a private club with a couple dozen members.
A lot of members come to the club to show off pistols they own or recently bought as an adult form of show and tell.
There are many who don’t shoot and haven’t fired a weapon in many years, Stanek said.
“They just come every once in a while to shoot the breeze and not shoot guns,” Stanek said.
Les Kismartoni is the match director for the McHenry chapter of the International Practical Shooting Confederation.
The club hosts competitions on the first and third Thursdays of the month at HP Shooting Center in McHenry.
Usually there are 27 people per event. The club has competitions where people have to move around to take aim at different targets, which vary from 6-inch steel targets to 60-inch cardboard targets. The goal is to be the fastest and the most accurate.
Kismartoni said the stages can be challenging mentally rather than physically. People need a game plan for the course and have to visualize in what order to shoot at targets while minimizing movement.
Kismartoni, a computer programmer, admits this may not be used in a real-world situation, but the stages are meant to be a challenge and force shooters to formulate strategies and plans.
“It’s an interesting hobby for us,” Kismartoni said. “It’s our version of golf.”
Shooting at targets competitively has become more and more popular.
“We haven’t had a match that hasn’t sold out yet [this year],” Kismartoni said.
Kismartoni said that although many people in the club tend to be more conservative, there is no organized political advocacy with the club. People who come to the club’s events are more concerned about the fundamentals of shooting, while providing camaraderie and friendly competition.
The McHenry chapter of the International Defensive Pistol Association has about 200 members.
It also meets at the HP Shooting range. Typical matches have 22 to 27 participants.
There are targets that swing back and forth, and some that come up from the ground.
There are even some targets that pop up that participants are not supposed to shoot.
The stages are meant to simulate real world self-defense scenarios, said Larry Hall, the match director for the McHenry IDPA.
“We want to make it challenging and interesting, or they get bored,” Hall said.
There are even walls set up where a person will have to peek around first before engaging a target, Hall said.
The clubs leave any kind of lobbying up to the National Rifle Association.
“We talk among ourselves when anti-gun bills are proposed,” Hall said. “We talk about it, but nothing organized.”