Deer season opened here in Oregon on Saturday, two days after a shooting at Umpqua Community College left 10 dead and nine more injured. Instead of getting dragged into a national dispute over firearms regulations, many of the roughly 166,000 deer hunters in Oregon decamped to the woods. I’m sad not to be joining them. I’ve been a hunter for eight years, but I’m sitting out this season after the recent birth of my second baby. Even if my fellow hunters weren’t preoccupied with scoping out steep hillsides and scanning the ground for hoof prints, however, they wouldn’t be jumping into the firearms policy fray.
Politicians who support increased gun control, including President Obama and Hillary Clinton, have asked hunters like me to stand up to the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun groups. There’s a disconnect between hunters and the organizations that claim to represent us. Like the majority of gun owners, we support policies that gun rights groups oppose, like universal background checks. But there’s a reason why sportsmen and sportswomen in particular have long been absent from the national debate on gun control: Hunters don’t like to talk about guns.
When I set out to write a book about my experience as an environmentalist urban dweller who learned to hunt, one of my mentors — in hunting and writing — advised me to avoid the topic of guns altogether.
“Don’t even touch it,” he said.
But I have to, I told him. It would be dishonest not to address an issue that I — raised near Washington, D.C. when that city was designated the murder capital of the world — saw as the most imposing barrier to becoming a hunter. Without guns, hunting would be as controversial as, well, fishing.
On guns, my mentor said, “You can’t win. No matter what you do, you’ll just make people angry. Then they won’t listen to anything else you have to say.”
Hunters don’t like talking about guns with other hunters, either. As with abortion, the topic of gun control conjures strong, deeply held convictions. And because hunters are a diverse group of gun owners, there’s always the possibility that someone will have an opposing view. At wildlife conferences, I’ve been impressed by the agile social tactics used to redirect a conversation that appears headed toward gun policy.
Hunter One: Have you heard the latest from California?
Hunter Two (suspecting a possible reference to a gun control bill): Hey, weren’t you going to tell me about your new puppy’s first hunt?
It’s a stark contrast to the outspokenness of gun control opponents such as John Hanlin, sheriff of the Oregon county that’s home to Umpqua, who seizes any chance to bring up gun policy. After the Sandy Hook shooting, Hanlin posted to Facebook a conspiracy video suggesting the attack was staged by the government in an attempt to rally support for tougher gun laws.
Hunters are uniquely positioned to find a middle ground on guns, a way to improve public safety without stripping people of their rights.”
Other gun enthusiasts don’t feel much incentive to draw hunters into their ranks. To trap club members, for example, hunters are a nuisance who crowd the shooting range in late summer and early fall. When I’ve gone to swing at clays in preparation for dove season, or to sight my rifle before pursuing deer, I’ve been met with sharp glares and mutterings about disappearing “back into the woods until next year.” To the most zealous Second Amendment defenders, having to share a range with us is made more irksome by the fact that we don’t share their passion for making sure AR-15s and all their accessories stay legal.
The fact is, those hardliners are right: a lot of hunters aren’t that interested in guns. We see them as tools that are required to participate in a far more intriguing hobby. A hunter like me would rather talk about where the mule deer have moved during the ongoing drought than about the kind of rifle I’m carrying. Besides, my rifle is the same one I carried last year and the year before that.
Because hunters aren’t frequent gun buyers, gun sale restrictions aren’t a big deal to us. Even relatively extreme gun control proposals would be irrelevant to our pastime. Mandatory waiting periods, for example, would inconvenience only the rare hunter who needs to replace a gun just before a season opens. High capacity magazines are only used by varmint hunters wishing to avoid the hassle of reloading.
But here’s what I’ve come to realize: My mentor was wrong when he said “we can’t win” by talking about guns. By remaining silent, we all lose. Hunters have sidelined ourselves on an issue that greatly affects us. We’ve unwittingly legitimized the NRA by providing it with a relatively palatable model of “law abiding gun owner” that serves as cover for the open-carrying absolutists it would rather not advertise. There are about 13.7 million hunters in the United States, compared with an estimated 5 million NRA members. The reason the NRA can call itself the nation’s largest sportsmen’s group — despite an absence of data on how many sportsmen are included in its ranks — is because no alternative gun organization exists.
I don’t belong to the NRA. The kind of hunting that I do faces its greatest threats from habitat loss, not gun control. During an election, I’m more likely to consult the League of Conservation Voters’ candidate ratings than the NRA’s.
As a hunter, I’ve also made peace with all kinds of gun regulations. The reason you haven’t heard of them is because we rarely protest them. When I go duck hunting, for instance, I am prohibited from shooting ammunition that contains lead, which could contaminate wetlands or rivers. I may not load more than three shells in my shotgun at one time. I can only hunt in certain areas, using a shotgun gauge that falls within a certain acceptable range.
None of these restrictions prevent me or other hunters from enjoying the tradition. On the contrary, the rules keep us safe and protect the wildlife populations that must thrive if we are to continue to responsibly cull them.
They also illustrate why hunters are uniquely positioned to find a middle ground on guns, a way to improve public safety without stripping people of their rights. But when non-hunters in my Portland neighborhood and beyond think of hunters, only one voice comes to mind: the NRA’s. All gun owners, whether they like it or not, are associated with a group that wants to see concealed carriers in every school in America.
I want my children to grow up feeling safe. Instead, my son practices lock down drills in his preschool classroom, the symptom of a society where unfettered access to weapons creates its own form of oppression. I also want my kids to go hunting with me when they are old enough, which of course means I don’t want to see anything close to a gun ban. And as a hunter, I acutely understand that there can be balance, that passing new gun laws isn’t going to bring an end to the world as we know it.
We need new laws to shape a future that has less violence but still has room in it for firearms. Hunters can help lead us there. But first, we have to start talking about guns.
[Photo: Lily Raff McCaulou]