Firearms instructor giving job his best shot

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Tom Petrik helds a Scout from Little City learn to use a muzzle-loading rifle.Credit: Tom Petrik

Let’s begin with 1969, a year I find more interesting in U.S. history than 1871.

Tom Petrik was about 12 years old and shooting with the Des Plaines Police Boys Rifle Team. Soon, he was an apprentice instructor for firearms and safety. In 1979, the Rainbow Council of Boy Scouts needed an instructor and sent him to get the full training.

This would be the place to note Petrik has old business cards that said he had gun, would travel.

Then came family times, and renewal-of-instructor status was skipped for family needs. In 2008, though, Petrik became recertified and came back to run camp programs for the Boy Scouts.

This winter, Petrik, 55, went through more extensive training in Wausau, Wis. On Tuesday, he received notice from the National Rifle Association that his appointment as a training counselor was official. He could begin training others to be instructors.

Why go through the bother and personal expense of the instructor-training course?

‘‘My goal is to try to train Boy Scouts,” Petrik said. ‘‘For them to shoot, they have to have an instructor in the specialty and another guy certified in range safety.”

The Scout method in the shooting sports is to start with BB and archery at the Cub Scout level, then move them up as they show ability.

‘‘The first thing is safety,” Petrik said. ‘‘I push that really hard.”

He has helped hundreds earn rifle merit badges. And thousands have come through the various ranges he works with in Illinois and Wisconsin.

‘‘Second, we want them to learn to shoot,” Petrik said. ‘‘Within three days, including kids with disabilities, they should be getting three shots within a quarter. We can get them to feel real confident about themselves. By Wednesday, most of them are able to do their merit badge.”

This mirrors the founding principles of the NRA.

It was started in 1871 for education and firearm-safety training and to ‘‘promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis.” It would be nearly a century later that the NRA’s lobbying side took sway in the public consciousness. Still, the safety and education side remains central to the association.

Virtually anybody who has gone through firearm or firearm-safety training was trained by an NRA instructor. They treat firearm safety with deadly seriousness.

‘‘The NRA has lesson plans to follow more detailed than any teacher I substitute for, and they want it followed and no one adding what they personally feel or adding, ‘I do this, but the NRA wants me to teach you this,’ ” said Petrik, a substitute teacher. ‘‘I’m a training counselor. I need to meet their education goals and standards, or I lose my position. It’s not a paid position; in fact, I paid for it. Based on that, it’s like any volunteer organization or the Chicago political scene. Take your choice.”

Yes, for a firearms instructor, many of whom can be remarkably humorless, Petrik has a sense of wit. And understanding.

‘‘We teach them how to clean and care for the gun, store the gun, transport the gun, go through all that, go through with everything,” Petrik said. ‘‘Will they remember it? Probably not. Will they know where to go for information? Yes.”

He is building a small team of instructors and said, ‘‘If somebody has a club that needs an instructor, we will work at it.”

Petrik can be reached at

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