(CNN) — She picks up the custom handgun painted in her favorite colors, purple and black.
Her long, black braid bounces slightly with each of the six shots she fires. Metal pings signify when she’s hit the mark. She runs to the next target. Nine more shots. Reload.
Meet Shyanne Roberts, a 10-year-old competitive shooter who is out to prove something: Children with guns don’t always mean disaster.
“I want to be an inspiration to other kids and be a leader,” said the girl. “Kids and guns don’t always mean bad things happen.”
Natural talent turns into a passion
Shyanne competes alongside junior shooters, who are participants younger than 18, and even adults. Last year, she beat out adult women to place second in the Women’s Division of the New Jersey Ruger Rimfire Challenge.
On October 31, she will square off against 200 of the top women shooters at the Brownell’s Lady 3-Gun Pro-Am Challenge in Covington, Georgia. Shyanne is the youngest competitive shooter registered at the female-only event, according to the match director. The top shooter has a chance to win $5,000, as well as items from a prize table of guns, ammo and more.
The Franklinville, New Jersey, girl, who now has more than 20 sponsors, started learning gun safety when she was 5. After she could recite the rules and had grasped what guns can do, around age 6, her father started taking her to a gun range. Dan Roberts is a certified firearms instructor and a single dad. He has custody of Shyanne and her younger brother.
Shyanne’s natural talent turned into a passion, and at 7 the young athlete started competing in local matches. Physically, a competitive shooter needs to have good hand and forearm strength, as well as the ability to handle the firearm’s sometimes-strong recoil. Good technique also helps.
Not every child is ready to wield a gun
When asked how he feels about his daughter using a gun, her father said, “I feel very comfortable because I know she’s been extraordinarily well-trained at how to be safe. I could have a fully loaded machine gun, and she would not dream of touching it because the curiosity factor has been eliminated.”
Roberts believes early firearm education and training are the keys to reducing gun accidents. He argues that if kids knew about guns at a young age, their curiosity wouldn’t get the best of them, leaving tragedy in their trail.
Even under direct supervision, giving kids access to guns can be deadly. A 9-year-old girl accidentally shot and killed her instructor with a submachine gun called an Uzi in August, causing anti-gun activists to reiterate their objections to allowing guns anywhere around children.
Roberts balks at the notion that training children to use guns poses an increased danger.
“We can teach fourth-graders safe-sex practices, but we can’t mention teaching firearm education in a public grade school without anti-gun groups having a complete meltdown. … It’s completely ludicrous,” he said.
Not everyone is convinced that teaching gun safety at a young age is the key to preventing accidents. Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign and Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, says it’s not enough.
“It’s not to say that teaching your kids gun safety can’t help, but relying on that alone is an extremely dangerous mentality,” Gross said. “I see tragedies every day that wind up occurring because a parent thought that their child knew better.”
Roberts trusts his daughter, but that doesn’t mean he believes that every child, or even adult, is ready to wield a gun.
“As an instructor for over a decade, I’ve been around adults that shouldn’t be within 10 feet of a slingshot,” he said. “I have a 10-year-old daughter that’s a competitive athlete. It really depends on the kids involved.”
‘It’s not just a hobby’
The fifth-grader’s determination to win a national title before she’s an adult shows in how she talks about her career — “It’s not a hobby; it’s what I want to do!” she insists.
There aren’t many children beating adults at matches, at least not since KC Eusebio. The California native started shooting competitively at 8. By the time he was 10, he became the youngest Master shooter in the history of the United States Practical Shooting Association. Eusebio, who is in his mid-20s, is a professional shooter for Glock’s competitive shooting team.
Winning a competition typically means recognition, free equipment and sponsorships, according to USPSA Media Director Chris Taylor. Rarely do the wins yield cash prizes.
“You’re really not going to make any money doing this. This is an expensive sport,” he said. “The ones who are professional shooters aren’t making a living on money; they’re making a living on sponsorships.”
3-Gun Nation, a different shooting style within competitive shooting, is an exception to the cash rule. At each match, the winner gets a pot of money. And at the championship, the top shooter wins $50,000.
Shyanne may not be a professional, but she is a rare breed. “At 10 years old, it’s tough to be doing anything well, as your muscles aren’t quite developed yet. That’s pretty impressive,” said Taylor, when he heard someone that young was beating adults in competition.
“It’s 95% males that get involved (in USPSA), but the funny thing is that girls tend to do better than the boys, in general,” he said. “I think it’s that they’re more open to coaching.”
Shyanne participates in several types of shooting styles, including USPSA, 3-Gun, Action Rifle and Steel Silhouette. USPSA and 3-Gun are two of about seven major styles within the sport of competitive shooting. Participants use shotguns, rifles or pistols, or a combination of different firearms, depending on the shooting style, Taylor said.
When looking at target shooting across all the styles, there’s been a 67% increase in the number of women participating in the past decade. More than 6.4 million women competed in 2012, compared with 3.8 million women in 2003, according to the National Sporting Goods Association’s annual sports participation reports.
USPSA membership is smaller, with about 25,000 active members and 500 children in the junior division, Taylor said. “We’re probably one of the smaller niche sports out there.”
The male version of ‘Dance Moms’?
Because of the small group size, USPSA participants are part of a close-knit community, Taylor said.
“Even though it’s really competitive, it’s one of the most congenial, social groups I’ve ever been a part of.”
Dan and Shyanne are very much a part of that culture. Roberts said he was recently trading text messages with a woman from Wisconsin whose daughter also competes. They plan to set up their camps next to each other at the next match.
Parents tend to be very involved in their child’s participation, much like any other sport. Competitive shooting costs money. Roberts buys firearms intended for Shyanne — she can’t legally own her two rifles and two shotguns until she’s 18 and her three pistols until she’s 21. There are also jerseys and gear that he gets customized for his daughter.
Beyond the money, there’s a big time commitment. Shyanne lives 15 minutes from the shooting range, and she tries to practice at least 30 minutes on each firearm — shotgun, pistol and rifle — every day. Sometimes that’s not realistic, as homework comes first, Roberts said.
All together, Shyanne practices about 15 hours per week. Her dad says that’s on the low end of what it should be.
“The next level she needs to get to is where she can walk out the back door onto her own private training range and shoot every day,” Roberts said.
At first impression, this can seem like a male version of “dance moms”: overbearing mothers thrusting their dance dreams on their children, pushing them to practice and win prizes.
Taylor, who attends USPSA events all over the country, says it’s not quite like that in competitive shooting. Participants are trying to beat their own scores.
“It’s your performance that determines your outcome,” he said. “It’s not quite the same thing as dance moms. You don’t have that kind of drama.”
An inkling of the competitive side of the sport came out while interviewing Shyanne over the phone. Her father could be heard nearby.
“I do have others hobbies like playing soccer and like …” Shyanne said.
“Hanging out,” her dad whispered in the background.
“Hanging out with my friends and …” she said.
“But this is what I really want to do,” he whispered.
“But this is really what I really want to do.”
Roberts admits that it was his idea to see whether Shyanne wanted to compete in matches.
“I never in my wildest dreams thought this is where we would be at just a few years after teaching her basic gun safety and education,” he said. “As an instructor, I noticed she had a natural talent. I brought up the idea to see if she wanted to do a match and she said yes.”
When she got second place at a competition early on in her career, Roberts said that’s when he saw it click. His daughter was hooked on the sport.
Roberts said as long as Shyanne is having fun, he’ll keep being her advocate, coach, PR guy and more. When it stops being fun, that’ll be the end of it.
“I want her to have as much success as she possibly can,” he said. “If all that ever comes out of this is that she gets a scholarship to a college with a rifle team,” — there are 31 colleges that sponsor NCAA rifle teams — “and if as a father I have the peace of mind that she can defend herself, I’m thrilled with just that.”
“The rest is just extra.”
But if you ask Shyanne what her dream is, the answer is much simpler: “I want to win the national title.”