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About Utah: A gun nut, and a safety nut too

Published: Monday, Sept. 2 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Robbie Robertson holds aloft a Glock pistol as he explains gun safety.

Lee Benson

MURRAY — Robbie Robertson has the class’s undivided attention. Which isn’t difficult. He is holding a Glock.

But there’s more. He has just posed a question that has them all scratching their brains:

“Who is the person most likely to shoot you?”

“Is it the bad guy?” he asks as the nine people taking his gun safety class proceed to think and ponder.

“Is it your wife?” he further suggests, in obvious jest, before adding, “I’ve got enough guns. I figure by the time she’s decided which one to use she’s over being mad at me.”

Finally he answers his original question.

“It’s you,” he says. “You’re the one most likely to shoot you.”

And with that, Robbie Robertson, legendary gun instructor, is off and running, once again, and for about the millionth time, sharing the unmitigated passion about guns, and about gun safety, that he’s been packing around since he was 6 years old and his dad gave him a .22 so he could shoot rabbits for dinner.

That would have been in the 1930s, the heart of the Great Depression, when Robbie and his older brother Lee grew up on the dry farms of West Jordan.

“So I’ve been a gun nut ever since I was a little guy,” says Robbie, smiling.

He’s preaching to the choir, of course. Nobody signs up for a gun safety/concealed weapons permit class because they hate guns.

But being a lover of guns is not enough for Robbie, you’ve got to be a lover of guns who is also obsessed with taking all necessary precautions to avoid unintended harm to yourself or others.

No one gets out of his class with their concealed permit signed without subscribing religiously to his four commandments of firearm safety:

All guns are always loaded

Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy — or pay for

Keep your finger off the trigger until the sights are on the target and you have made the conscious decision to fire

Be sure of your target and the backstop beyond

And, he adds as a kind of fifth law, when you’re not using them lock them up.

“You can’t hide them,” he says, “where the kids can’t find them.”

There’s no empirical way to calculate just how many accidents Robbie’s gun safety sermons have saved, how many injuries have been averted, how many deaths have been delayed, but the statistics do suggest no one has tried harder or been at it longer.

He started teaching his first gun class to police cadets nearly 45 years ago and at 82 he’s still at it. There’s hardly a cop in the valley who hasn’t heard him tell them that they are the most likely person to shoot themself — and its corollary: The second most likely to shoot them is their partner.

He’s also the firearms coordinator at Salt Lake Community College, where besides teaching a class every Saturday for police cadets he fits in an open-to-the-public gun safety/concealed weapons course from time to time. (The next one is scheduled for Dec. 13-14.)

Robbie’s message carries maximum impact because of his infectious enthusiasm for all things gun. Few pack around his kind of credentials. When he was in the Air Force he set a world record for accuracy with a rapid-fire service rifle that still stands. He is one of a select few with a Distinguished Rifleman patch on his uniform. And at home he has a museum-caliber collection consisting of 104 firearms that includes every shoulder weapon used by the U.S. military since the Civil War — all locked up in a safe, of course.

Robbie’s penchant for safety came hard-earned. When he was just 14 years old he accompanied his father J. Lee and older brother Lee on the annual Utah deer hunt. It was the fall of 1945 and his brother had just returned from serving in World War II, days after the Japanese surrender. The three weren’t in the woods more than 45 minutes before Lee shot his deer, after which he let the hammer down on his rifle and leaned the gun against a tree. His father picked up the gun and placed it in the back of the pickup, where it slid to the bumper, triggering the hammer and sending a bullet through J. Lee Robertson’s right hand.

“He lost most of the use of that hand the rest of his life,” says Robbie, shaking his head 68 years later.

“That got us both really into gun safety,” he explains, pointing out that his brother, until the day he died 15 years ago, was responsible for teaching innumerable gun safety classes for the Division of Wildlife Resources and was one of the visionaries behind the popular Lee Kay Center for Hunter Education in West Valley City. (The facility is named after another Lee, longtime Fish & Game director Lee Kay.)

“You start out blaming the gun,” he adds, “but eventually you come to the realization it wasn’t the gun’s fault.”

It’s yours. That’s the gospel according to Robbie Robertson. If you pick up a firearm, it’s your responsibility — and no one else’s — to make sure it’s safe.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. EMAIL: benson@deseretnews.com

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