Several of the students had a knee-jerk reaction when gun-rights advocate Clark Aposhian blasted his first pistol round into a target Thursday. But it was physical, not ideological.
These students from around America were in Salt Lake City to learn and test their beliefs, not to dismiss opposing views.
Roughly 40 Jewish high schoolers traveling the country are hearing from experts on opposing sides of the nation's most politically charged issues. Aposhian was the National Rifle Association's face for the day after the group's stop in Colorado to hear from a gun-control advocate whose child died in the Columbine school shootings.
"You've met the NRA," tour leader Billy Planer told the students after Aposhian finished demonstrating two handguns and an automatic machine gun. "It's not so demonizing."
Guns are not a natural fit for some of the children, most of whom live in Eastern cities and, Planer said, liberal families. But after hearing Aposhian's hourlong defense of gun rights just before the demonstration, some said they appreciate his opinions even if they disagree.
Boston teenager Sarah Cohen acknowledged she's no Second Amendment scholar, but she couldn't understand Aposhian's support for public ownership of machine guns.
"There's a difference between having a gun for self-protection and having a gun for the military," she said.
Josh Braude, a Northbrook, Ill., student, was disturbed by that Utah permits concealed weapons.
"That's scary because people might have more of a tendency to fire the gun instead of calming down the argument," he said.
Some of the students agreed with Aposhian's defense of admittedly unnecessary or impractical guns -- essentially "why not?" -- and whooped at the noise on the firing range.
Aposhian, the most active lobbyist for gun-rights issues on Utah's Capitol Hill, addressed the students in a room at the Lee Kay Center for Hunter Education. Throughout his talk, a half dozen hands remained always in the air: Don't guns increase suicide? Aren't machine guns simply killing machines? Doesn't easy gun access increase violent crime?
The answer to all three of those particular questions is "no," in Aposhian's view. Japan has fewer guns but more suicides, he said. Machine guns are designed to make people take cover, and are less effective killers than rifles, he said. And he referred to studies indicating gun access reduces crime.
Many of the students questioned his assertions. Some agreed with him. When someone asked why he should have a machine gun, he asked why he shouldn't. He wants one, he said, and it's no different from someone wanting a faster car than they need.
"It's a bull answer," Newton, Pa., student Seth Novick said later, "but it's still a true answer. You don't need it, but you can have it."
It was the seventh time Aposhian has hosted the group's summer tour, and he said he's trying to dull some of the gun hype that young Americans hear elsewhere.
Planer has guided each of those trips for the Atlanta-based youth education group and said many retain an anti-gun resolve -- and some are frightened to hear gunfire -- but they respect the debate.
"They walk away realizing sometimes the vilified other side isn't the enemy," he said. "It's just somebody who disagrees with them.