Merced County Times Newspaper
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Times Photos by Jonathan Whitaker

Hundreds of Girl Scouts learning gun safety, marksmanship


Many local residents might be surprised to learn that one of the top firearms training facilities in California — and the entire United States — is located deep inside the sprawling Bettencourt Ranch, just outside of Winton and Atwater, and bordered by the Merced River.

The River Oaks Firearms Training Center, managed by the nonprofit Safety First Shooting Association, trains more people about firearms that any other range in the state combined.

However, the local volunteers pay particular attention to young people, youth groups and up-and-coming sports enthusiasts who compete in state and national trap/skeet competitions.

Among the many activities at River Oaks is the annual 4-H Western Heritage State Championships attended by thousands of 4-H students from California and beyond.

This year, River Oaks has kicked things up a notch with a new partnership with the Girls Scouts of the U.S.A. to provide monthly firearms training to the organization’s Heart of Central California (HCC) Council that represents more than 18,000 girls in the region.

Late last month, the first group of about 110 kids, ages 7 to 17, from as far away as Sacramento, gathered at the range for the first-ever session.

Most of these girls have never handled or fired a rifle before, let alone participate in shooting sports.

“This is a first for our council,” said Debbie Avila, the HCC’s community engagement manager. “Marksmanship has always been apart of the our council, but we never had a partnership like this. The hope is to have our parents get involved and make it sustainable.”

Fortunately, the Safety First Shooting Association volunteers are deeply involved in making the partnership work. The trained gun experts are donating their time, and all the equipment and safety materials involved.

All the girls learn about firearm history and safety, and depending on age, many have a chance to participate at the rifle range and the trap shooting range, along with trying out black powder rifle shooting and Western action shooting. There is also an archery workshop, and a wilderness survival class along the Merced River.

“I was a little nervous, but at the same time I wanted to know more about rifles and guns,” said 17-year-old Juniper Neff of Troop 130 in Lodi. “They are fascinating machines. The kickback was stronger than I expected, but I’m better at shooting than I thought I would be. I think it’s a good experience, and it’s something good to be exposed to. It gives you confidence by just doing it. I’m not sure I will ever own one, but if I ever need to use one, I know I will do so safely.”

Down by the river, little Beatrix Z’berg of Troop 101 in Sacramento said she learned quite a few things about what to do if she ever gets lost in the wilderness.

“I learned how to make a shelter out of everyday things like a garbage bag, and where to build a fire, and how to survive without bottled water or food,” Z’berg said with excitement.

Her mother, Sarah, loved the idea of the program. “I think it’s great to have all these volunteers who take time to teach these lessons. And we are very fortunate to have these spaces and environments. We are visiting from a very urban environment in the center of Sacramento. I think this will be an experience my daughter will never forget.”

The origins of River Oaks can be traced back to 1997, but it really started to take shape in the early 2000s.

“We wanted to make sure the kids knew about gun safety, and we wanted everybody to know that kids shoot for free at the range — and that’s still true today,” said farmer Michael Bettencourt who owns the land where the range is located.

Duane Young is the president of the Safety First group, and he says the range has come a long way. He said they have trained 4-H advisors representing clubs in virtually all areas of the state. He added that some 15 Eagle Scout projects have been completed at the facility.

The yearly attendance is about 11,000 people of all ages, and according to Young, that number is down slightly in part because of new gun legislation that limits or restricts the sale of ammunition to law-abiding gun owners.

Nevertheless, he said the volunteers are moving forward with the help of grants and community donations. A new self-defense training course is getting started for members of the faith-based community in light of recent gun violence at churches across the nation. Those interested are encouraged to attend. To learn more, go online to: For your event or class, please email Dave Givens at: [email protected], or call 209-614-1718.

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