Gun rights and gold medals: US shooters sweep the skeet in Tokyo

It was a rough winter for the US shooting team, with some members sent to practise in an abandoned Macy’s department store when the pandemic closed their training centre. At least in Tokyo they have acquired some high-end baubles.

Amber English won the women’s skeet gold medal on Monday and Vincent Hancock triumphed in the men’s event, a day after Will Shaner was victorious in the men’s 10-metre air rifle. All set Olympic record scores.

Hancock also won gold in Beijing and London. English, on her Olympic debut, defeated the reigning champion, Italy’s Diana Bacosi, by one point in a tense finish. She felt less composed than she looked. “I was extremely nervous,” she said after a quick search for an American flag.

Once found, she held it aloft for photographers with pride, wonder and not a little relief. “I’m just like, Twilight Zone, right now. I’m just so thankful that it’s over,” she said.

The 31-year-old is a first lieutenant in the US Army and part of a military programme that develops elite “soldier-athletes” with the goal of giving Americans “another reason to get excited about the Army”. Her father, Mike, was a champion shooter who died while diving in the Cayman Islands in 2016 during a trip to celebrate his wedding anniversary.

“After he passed it was very, very hard to get back on the range because there were so many reminders,” she said, crediting Hancock’s support with helping her return to action. “I owe him a lot for pushing me to get out there and do it.”

Team GB’s medal hope, Amber Hill, the world skeet No 1, was forced to miss the Games after testing positive for Covid-19 shortly before she was due to fly to Tokyo.

It was a banner day for the sport in the US at the Asaka range on a mosquito-ridden complex bisected by overhead power lines, adjacent to a military base 15 miles north-west of central Tokyo.

Shooting’s Olympic existence began more glamorously at the first Games in 1896 when Olga Constantinovna, Queen of the Hellenes, fired a ceremonial first shot with a flower-draped rifle in an Athens gallery made of pristine white marble.

Some 120 years later, marksmanship aficionados were treated to the slightly less refined spectacle of Piers Morgan sniping on Twitter as an American won the first gold medal of the Rio Games, and USA Shooting, the governing body, firing back by accusing the gun-control advocate of trolling.

Morgan’s facile argument: it is no wonder that a country of 330 million people with an estimated 400 million guns in circulation and a serious homicide problem is good at shooting. “What we do out here on the skeet fields and on the rifle range has nothing to do with crime and violence,” Matt Suggs, the chief executive of USA Shooting, said.

The US is indeed the all-time medal leader, with roughly as many golds as the next three countries (China, Russia and Italy) combined. But Ginny Thrasher’s first-day success in the 10-metre air rifle was the US’s only shooting gold of the 2016 Games, while top-ranked Italy won four. Though the US has a large number of competitive shooters, they are not necessarily taking aim in the international disciplines featured in the Olympics.

This year the governing body announced a partnership with Hillsdale College, an ultra-conservative Christian institution in Michigan that accepts no government funding on principle. The college will invest $15m to become the home of USA Shooting, according to the Wall Street Journal, in a deal that includes competitions and training camps being held at upgraded facilities.

“It’s not a political affiliation, it’s more around a common cause,” Suggs said: that is, promoting athletic excellence while defending the constitutional right to bear arms. Hillsdale hosts Ladies and Couples for Liberty seminars and shooting camps.

Some shooters, notably the six-time Olympian and six-time medallist Kim Rhode, are not shy about using their platform to advocate for gun rights. The 42-year-old is a vocal Donald Trump supporter and lead plaintiff in a case challenging a Californian law on restrictions for ammunition purchases.

“We don’t tell our athletes what to say or believe, obviously, and you’d be surprised how many of our athletes have widely varying views on the political spectrum,” Suggs said. “But when it comes to ownership of firearms, because it’s part of what they do, they’re all in lockstep with the second amendment and believing that somebody should have a personal right to own a firearm whether it’s for sport, for protection, for hunting or whatever purpose they desire.”

Very few American journalists were present as shotgun-wielding competitors blasted flying targets into wispy puffs of purple powder with astonishing consistency and dexterity on an overcast, humid afternoon.

“We have a big following in terms of people who participate in the sport but less so with mass media,” said Suggs. “I think one of the challenges for us is we’ve got to continue to work on making the sport more television-friendly.”

There are surely few more appealing images for a domestic audience than their athletes standing on the pinnacle of the podium – twice in quick succession.

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