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Shooting Has Long Tradition at Camp David

In this photo released by the White House, President Barack Obama shoots clay targets on the range at Camp David, Md., Saturday, Aug. 4, 2012. (The White House - Pete Souza)

In this photo released by the White House, President Barack Obama shoots clay targets on the range at Camp David, Md., Saturday, Aug. 4, 2012. (The White House - Pete Souza)

The photo issued recently by the White House of President Obama shooting skeet at Camp David intrigued a lot of people. Not only because of the perceived incongruity — the president is not known to be a hunter or target shooter — but because most people, including most gun owners, didn’t know a skeet range existed at the Maryland presidential retreat.

Actually, such a range has existed at Camp David for about a half-century. An avid skeet shooter, President Eisenhower ordered one built and regularly tried to improve his shooting eye.

This was at a time — the 1950s — when skeet enjoyed a social standing similar to what golf and tennis do today.

Subsequent to Eisenhower, other presidents also have shot skeet at Camp David, including President Kennedy and his wife, Jackie.

More recently, during George W. Bush’s presidency, Camp David’s skeet range was refurbished and a new trap range overlaid on it. The work was completed free of charge by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the trade group that represents gun and ammunition manufacturers and gun retailers.

The NSSF and at least one of its member gun manufacturers — Remington — also donated shotguns for use at the range, which is maintained by a U.S. Marine contingent.

Ironically, this is the same NSSF that strongly opposes the president’s recent gun control efforts and proposals.

“We donated the time and equipment and were happy to do it,” Larry Keane, NSSF senior vice president and general council, told me from the group’s Connecticut headquarters. “It wasn’t for the benefit for any one individual, but for the presidency.”

Developed in the 1920s by Charles Davis, an avid grouse hunter from Andover, Mass., skeet (reportedly derived from the Norwegian word “skyte,” meaning shoot) became the preferred shooting game of many of Hollywood’s leading men during the first half of the last century, especially Clark Gable, but also Robert Stack (perhaps the best shot of the bunch), Fred MacMurray and others.

There’s a Minnesota connection here. The late Jimmy Robinson (1897-1986) was, for 45 years, the trap and skeet editor for Sports Afield magazine.

Anything to do with either sport went through Jimmy, including the All-American teams, which for many years he picked. Jimmy also chummed with all of the sports’ big shots, including Gable, Stack, Roy Rogers and big-name sportsmen and women such as Ernest Hemingway, Annie Oakley and baseball great Ted Williams.

Given skeet’s social cache, it makes sense that Eisenhower ordered a skeet range to be built at Camp David, not a trap range, which at the time didn’t carry the gunning gravitas skeet did.

Not only presidents, but presidential guests, have taken a crack at Camp David skeet shooting.

The July 17, 1970, edition of the Rome (Ga.) News-Tribune, for instance, published a news service story that then 21-year-old Prince Charles of Great Britain was a guest of President Nixon.

At Camp David, Charles shot skeet with — and easily bested — Nixon’s son-in-law, David Eisenhower.

The long history of presidential gunning aside, the tightness of the framing of the Obama “skeet” photo gives rise to questions that snapshots of other chief executives shooting at Camp David do not.

Namely, was Obama actually shooting skeet? Or was he instead shooting trap on the retreat’s relatively new range — or just shooting clay targets?

A big deal? Not really, except that shooters everywhere are amazed almost daily about inaccuracies with which gun information is relayed by the media.

The mistakes have led to a distrust among gun owners of just about everything politicians say about firearms, and a distrust also of media reports about guns.

Example: The New York Times story that first accompanied the Obama photo identified the firearm (not weapon, a term that more accurately describes military and other guns intended to kill people) that Obama was shooting as a rifle, not a shotgun — the equivalent of calling a car a boat, or a giraffe a deer.

That said, and ending here positively, given the president’s athleticism, doubtless he could improve his accuracy with a shotgun very quickly, with proper instruction and practice.

Like millions of other Americans, Eisenhower, another two-term president, found not only challenge and satisfaction in trying to bust clay targets, but exhilaration.

It’s likely Obama would, too.