MARTINSBURG, Neb. — When he was in high school, Charley Mahler witnessed a near tragedy from the back seat of a car full of kids.

He still can see the events unfold in his mind, and it’s the thought that a friend could have died because of the careless handling of a gun that led him to say yes when asked more than 40 years ago if he’d teach hunter education classes to area youth.

“I thought what a better way to teach kids,” said Mahler, a Martinsburg farmer who began teaching hunter education classes in the early 1970s after Dick Turpin, a local game warden at the time, asked him if he’d be interested.

Mahler’s been at it ever since, teaching the four-week classes twice a year through Nebraska Game and Parks.

“It was pretty rough when we started. We had it at the school in Ponca and told the kids to bring the gun they were going to hunt with to school,” Mahler said, laughing at the memory of asking kids to bring guns and ammunition to school.

As is the case in most volunteer programs, there’s a long list of people involved, and for 25 years, Doug Smith has been there with Mahler, two long-serving members of a team made up of a number of other hunting and shooting enthusiasts who help young people — and a few adults — from a four-county area learn how to safely handle guns and hunt responsibly.

“It’s the idea of trying to keep children safe and don’t let them start with any bad habits,” Smith said. “Being in such a small community, we really stress safety. We probably know most of the kids or their parents, and we don’t want something to happen.”

Mahler doesn’t want to see a repeat of the incident that continues to inspire him to teach gun safety.

While in high school, he was riding to school in a car packed full of kids. The driver stopped and pulled out a shotgun to shoot at squirrels. When he shoved the gun back in the car, the hammers were cocked and the gun discharged when he slammed the door.

Mahler said the shot shredded the car’s seat and the shirt of one of the boys, whose arm was peppered with shotgun pellets. Had the shot been a couple of inches over, that boy could have been killed.

“You teach kids you can’t call that shot back,” Mahler said of the importance of the hunter education class.

According to the Sioux City Journal ( ), it’s why on four recent Monday nights, the volunteer teachers gathered with 15 students in the Martinsburg Fire Hall, where they’ve met since it was built in 2014, to show kids how to properly load and unload different kinds of guns. They teach the kids how to carry their guns safely and the various shooting positions.

“Some of them have never handled a gun. Some of them think they’ll never hunt, but they want to learn how to handle a gun,” said Smith, Dixon County’s noxious weed superintendent.

Other lessons include conservation and hunting ethics, such as always getting permission from landowners to hunt on their land and picking up after themselves while out in the field.

The emphasis always comes back to safety, starting with helping students identify the parts of a gun and teaching them how each piece works.

“I enjoy handling the guns with the kids and teaching them to be safe,” Mahler said. “You want to get those guys on the straight path.”

Smith, who said he began hunting as soon as he could walk and hold a gun while growing up on a farm north of Allen, Nebraska, wants to see the next generation of hunters enjoy hunting and other shooting sports.

“I just want the students to be able to have the chance to hunt and to hunt safely like I did when I was a kid,” he said.

With the help of Mahler, Smith and the other volunteers, dozens of kids are getting that shot.

Information from: Sioux City Journal,

An AP Member Exchange shared by the Sioux City Journal.