Guns. It sometimes seems that we can’t really talk about anything in American life without somehow, at some point, referencing the nation’s enduring obsession with guns. After the unspeakable horror of Sandy Hook (and the Wisconsin Sikh temple massacre, Virginia Tech, Columbine, Jared Lee Loughner’s 2011 slaughter in Tuscon, Chicago’s terrifying spike in gun-related violence in 2012 and on and on), the national conversation around gun rights and gun control has assumed an urgency that at times verges on desperation.
What the hell, everyone seems to be asking, can we do about the endless killing?
The numbers related to gun violence in the land of the free are, of course, deeply chilling. More than 8,500 Americans were murdered by guns (or rather, by killers wielding guns) in 2011, according to FBI data. Of those, 565 were under the age of 18; 119 were kids 12 or younger. Meanwhile, according to at least one study, the annual number of deaths in America by gunfire is likely to exceed that of traffic fatalities by 2015. Wherever one comes down on the gun debate, most sane people can agree that those sort of statistics are a national disgrace and . . . well, insane.
But there are literally tens of millions of Americans who own and shoot guns entirely within the letter and spirit of the law. Hunting, for example, is a pastime and a rite of passage in countless communities around the U.S., and the vast majority of hunters — men and women, boys and girls — are not taking down deer and ducks and bears and doves with slingshots, or with bows and arrows. They’re using rifles and shotguns — as they have for generations.
Six decades ago, in its March 26, 1956, issue, LIFE magazine published a remarkable series of photos that accompanied an article titled, “Drawing a Bead on Safety.” Here, in hopes of providing at least a bit more context and a small measure of perspective on the nation’s gun debate, LIFE revisits those images and that article. After all, the central point of the current discussion around guns is how to make communities safer. Assuming that shotguns, at the very least, will likely be with us for a while, and that families and friends will continue to hunt together for the foreseeable future, lessons in how to shoot what one is hunting, rather than blasting oneself or one’s companions, will always have a necessary place in our gun-happy culture.
As LIFE put it in “Drawing a Bead on Safety” all those years ago (citing a statistic that is still appalling today):
In 1954 more than 550 U.S. children under 15 were killed in accidents involving the careless handling of firearms, five of them in lake County, Indiana. [In 2010, 606 people were killed by “accidental discharge of firearms,” according to the CDC. — Ed.] This situation shocked Indiana Conservation Officer Rod Rankin, who decided to offer a course in gun safety to any interested child in the county. In the past year 2,500 children from 6 years on, with the approval of their parents, have taken him up on it.
Rankin stresses two things: never point as gun at anybody, even in play, and always check immediately to see if the gun is loaded . . . Rankin is glad to answer routine questions such as “How fast and far does a bullet go?” but tries to discourage ones like “Have you ever shot anyone?” and “If you shoot a man in the head how long does it take him to die?”
Some people think Rankin is starting the kids on firearms too young. But the National Rifle Association points out that four states now permit gun safety courses in grade school and says, “The earlier a kid learns to respect a gun and what not to do with it the better chance natural curiosity won’t get him in trouble.”
Love or hate the NRA — and no one, it seems, is indifferent toward the organization — logic that stresses education and safety around firearms is something that pretty much all of us can get behind. Isn’t it?
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.