1 of 17
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):
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.