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For all the talk about America’s being a gun-crazy country, turns out we can’t shoot after all. At least not in the Olympics.

Our men’s shooting team, though the biggest contingent in the Games, clearly wasn’t at home on the range in Sydney. U.S. males failed to win any of the nine shooting events in the XXVII Olympiad. (One American woman, Nancy Johnson, did score a gold in air rifle.) Until the last of eight days of shooting competitions, the American men hadn’t even earned a single medal. The Yanks’ drought ended only when James Graves took third in skeet, the last rifle event.

In summary: We’re the ones with the Second Amendment, and the best our men can get is one third place. The land of lead, and all we take home is one bronze?

Yup.

How bad is that? Well, this bad: Squads from Russia, China, Britain, France, and Bulgaria, among others, earned more hardware than we did; but the lads from Lithuania, the boys from Belarus, and even the mooks from some place called Moldova, led by the suspiciously named shooter Oleg Moldovan, also kicked our butts in Sydney. The Kuwaitis, behind Fehaid “Walking Tall” Al Deehani, matched our take. And we had to rescue them in the Gulf War?

For some perspective on how far the Americans have fallen in shooting, consider that at the 1920 Games in Antwerp, one member of the U.S. team, Morris Fisher, won five gold medals by himself.

With our Olympic riflemen stuck in this bronze age, does that mean we’re going soft as a country? That our shooters are aiming too low? Not according to the National Rifle Association.

“If you’re asking me if because [the U.S. men’s team] only got one medal, that makes us losers, well, to that I say, ‘Au contraire, Pierre,’” says H.Q. Moody, the NRA’s national coach trainer. “I’m proud of our team, and I think all of America should be proud.”

Moody, who works out of the NRA’s national headquarters in Northern Virginia, oversees the instruction given for all his group’s competitive-shooting programs, and he personally worked with many members of the U.S. Olympic team. (The Olympic shooting team in this country is now chosen by the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based group USA Shooting, which took over that duty from the NRA in the mid-’90s.) He concedes that we have more shooters, competitive or otherwise, than any other nation: More than 1.7 million Americans of almost all ages currently participate in NRA-sponsored competitive-shooting programs. And he says the team we sent to Sydney was indeed the best of the best.

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Yet despite the meager medal haul, Moody contends that there’s no need to tinker with the training regimen that the U.S. shooting team went through before the latest Olympiad. Our men and women, he says, had enough talent and training to go for the gold. The bullets just didn’t bounce their way when it counted.

“You have to understand: The difference between winning a gold medal and coming in fourth place in international shooting is about the size of a pinhead on these targets,” he says. “These competitions often come down to who is the hot shooter that particular day. We win our share of competitions. All this means is we didn’t have the hot shooters [in Sydney]. It doesn’t mean we don’t have a fine program in this country. We do.”

To the anti-gun lobby, however, the Americans’ small haul in the recent Olympiad is somewhat laughable. The gun-controllers have heard too much from the NRA over the years about the incredibly important role sport shooting has in the U.S. not to take some pleasure in the Sydney showing.

“We’re the most gun-friendly nation on earth. When you count collectibles, there is probably a firearm for every man, woman, and child in this country. Nobody else can claim that,” says David Bernstein, spokesperson for D.C.-based Handgun Control. “[Gun-control advocates] are not concerned with competitive shooting at all. But whenever any reasonable [gun-control] regulation is proposed, even something like background checks at gun shows, the NRA comes out and screams that this will be the end of all sport shooting as we know it. That’s ridiculous.

“It sounds to me like the NRA should be working to improve the gun-training programs instead of using those scare tactics,” Bernstein continues. “If we’re doing that badly [in the Olympics], those training programs must be providing as much assistance to the sport shooters in this country as the NRA’s efforts in other areas are providing to all the victims of gun violence in this country.”

Even absent a change in the training methods used by American sport shooters, there may be a way to get us back to the top of the international gun rack. There are all sorts of statistics that show Americans to be far more experienced than foreigners when it comes to using guns away from the target range. So the folks who run the Olympics could be the ones to get our boys out of their medal rut. Just as synchronized swimming was created only to appease American pool parents (a forerunner of soccer moms) whose kids couldn’t swim fast enough for the national swim team—and we owned that “sport” for several Olympiads after its creation—the Olympics people could tinker with the shooting events so that they’re tailored to America’s known strengths with firearms.

For example, use targets in the form of human beings, instead of those sterile round circles: In 1996—the last Olympic year—33,750 Americans lost their lives to guns, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Nobody can touch us there.

Mirrors might make for better targets, too. We shoot ourselves like it’s nobody’s business. Between 1979 and 1997, there were 334,870 suicides by gun in the U.S., according to the NCHS. Again, we are the champions there.

Best yet, have the bull’s-eyes placed on children. The Centers for Disease Control says American children under 15 are killed by guns at 12 times the rate in all other industrialized nations—combined. And four more of our kids are wounded by gunfire for every death.

Then again, it’s not a certainty that such tinkering would give Americans a competitive advantage over everybody else. Firearm-violence stats aren’t available for Moldova. —Dave McKenna