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9-year-old sharpshooter in her element at NRA convention

Addyson "Alpha Addy" Soltau, 9, tries out rifles on Saturday, May 5, 2018 in the Keystone Sporting Arms booth, maker of the Crickett youth rifle, which Soltau first learned to shoot with, at the 147th NRA Annual Meetings and Exhibits, in Dallas, Texas. (Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

The gap-toothed 9-year-old girl walked the floor of her first National Rifle Association convention, her blond ponytail bobbing above earrings fashioned from bullet casings.

When Addysson “Addy” Soltau arrived at the Smith & Wesson booth, she gravitated to a sleek silver .22 semi-automatic victory pistol, a James Bond-style gun with a silencer attached. It was just out of reach. So her godfather lifted it from the wall and handed it to Addy, who gripped and sighted along the gun like a pro. She already shoots an M&P 1522 rifle hanging nearby.

“That’s actually your next gun,” her godfather, Johnny Campos, said of the pistol. Addy gaped, overjoyed.

“Alpha Addy” became a YouTube sensation and NRA darling after she started shooting three years ago, one of many competitive girl shooters who buck not only gun culture stereotypes, but also the youth-driven gun-control movement that sprung up after the mass shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., this year.

The NRA doesn’t track the number of young female shooters, a spokesman said, but as the number of women with guns has grown, they are inspiring their daughters. The National Shooting Sports Foundation says there’s been a 77 percent increase in female gun ownership since 2005, with 5.4 million women participating in target shooting.

All the youth celebrities at this weekend’s annual NRA convention in Dallas, which was expected to draw more than 80,000 people, were female. Keystone Sporting Arms, which sold the Crickett and Chipmunk starter rifles at the convention under the banner “Never too young to understand freedom,” sells as many pink and turquoise guns as the traditional colors, staff said. On Sunday, families with children flocked to the Dallas convention center for NRA Youth Day.

Many who stopped at the JM4 Tactical booth where Addy was greeting fans Sunday were parents and girl shooters who recognized her from her videos. A video of her rapidly reloading at home has more than 30 million views; she has 14,000 Facebook followers, 5,600 on Instagram and nearly 300 subscribers on YouTube, where the lead video shows her target shooting to the tune of Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball.”

Addy was inspired by 17-year-old Katelyn Francis, a female competitive shooter she saw on NRATV while her godfather was babysitting her in San Antonio. Then she found the YouTube channel of Faith and Jenna Collier, sisters in nearby Austin who were about her age, and asked if she could shoot too.

Campos, 28, a retired Marine, agreed to coach her.

“She had never been around firearms. I didn’t own any. Her parents didn’t. This all started because she showed an interest,” he said.

Addy’s parents, who work at an education company, had their doubts.

“Her mom was kind of not for the whole firearms thing when we first started,” because of safety concerns, Campos said, noting that out of all the sports Addy does, “shooting is the one sport where she’s never gotten hurt. There’s just so many checks and balances in terms of safety.”

Campos shot competitively when he was younger, so he knew how to teach Addy Olympic precision-shooting positions. They worked on a different position each week: prone, stationary, sitting. Addy learned to draw a pistol from her holster and tuck the butt of a rifle into her cheek well. Two years ago, Campos decided she was ready for competition.

When Addy was disqualified from a match last June for “unsafe firearm usage” (she left the stage with the gun pointed incorrectly), Campos posted about it on Instagram and Facebook.

“It was a good teachable moment for other competitive junior shooters,” he said. “Every match she’s getting better, she gets more confident.”

Last year, they joined the Colliers on the Austin Sure Shots women’s gun club youth team. The Sure Shots started eight years ago as a women’s shooting club, and has grown to include 400 women and a youth league. There are a dozen spots for girls ages 5 to 12 on the team, with a waiting list, said founder Niki Jones.

“It was daughters of our current members coming and saying ‘Can I shoot with you?’” she said. “They train like adults, all day. One showed up in a tutu. We were OK with that.”

Jones, who started shooting at 5 with her father on Long Island, beamed as Addy fielded questions from fans at the convention, posing for photos and signing autographs.

“She’s atypical,” Jones said of Addy, “She trains constantly.”

Firearms instructor Kevin Dixie of St. Louis quizzed Addy about her favorite guns. His 12-year-old son shoots and his 6-year-old daughter wants to, but is busy with school and ballet, he said.

Addy also does karate, cheerleading and horseback riding. Karate is her favorite, followed by shooting. For other girls, like the Colliers, activities such as dance have eclipsed shooting.

Eddie Wise was excited to pose for a photo with Addy because he said his 8-year-old daughter at home north of Houston is itching to shoot and has yet to see Addy’s videos.

“My little girl wants me to show her as soon as I get home,” said Wise, who works in the oil industry.

His wife, who started shooting as an adult, said their daughter can’t get a gun until she’s 10. But the girl already has a gun picked out –– a .22 caliber rifle that Wise said he plans to give her for her birthday.

Addy’s sponsors hovered as she sat on a stool surrounded by leather holsters, greeting passersby. Chad Myers, who was keeping an eye on his 8-year-old son, said he had been to the range with Addy and was impressed.

“She has a keen eye,” he said, pointing to his son, who is not a competitive shooter. “He can break down a Glock, but he can’t do that.”

Sarah Ott also stopped to snap a photo with Addy and her 11-year-old daughter, who she called an “amateur shooter,”

“Aren’t we all compared to her though? She’s amazing,” Ott said.

A girl from east Texas in a Minions T-shirt and cutoffs approached Addy with her family in tow.

“I like your earrings,” said Gracie Priest, all smiling cheeks sprinkled with freckles. The two started chatting.

Gracie said she also shoots, a .22 Ruger Mark IV.

“I shoot arrows too,” she told Addy, saying she uses a longbow.

Both of Gracie’s parents shoot. She said her younger brothers are too little — ages 4 and 1.

“I started really young with my dad,” said her mother, Stephanie Priest, 26.

They have rules, Gracie’s father said. Gracie shoots at the range, but at home, her gun stays in the family gun safe.

“When they get older, guns aren’t taboo,” said Tim Priest, who designs metal buildings for a living. Instead of warning children to stay away from guns, he and others at the convention said they prefer to teach them how to handle guns safely.

“You live it day by day. If you tell them don’t do this, they’re going to want to do it,” he said.

Some of those who visited Addy at the convention asked about her younger sister Trystan, who they had seen in her videos on the range.

The 6-year-old was too energetic to bring to the convention, Campos said, but he is teaching her to shoot, as he did with Addy.

“We think she’s going to be better when she starts, because she’s been watching me,” Addy said.

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© 2018 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.