On Guns and Hunting
I grew up duck hunting in Northern California. And even back then—mostly in the 70s—it was exactly that: hunting. There wasn’t a lot of killing going on. Places like Grizzly Island and Los Banos looked the part; there just weren’t that many birds. The reasons for that are varied and concerning, but, at the time, I didn’t know any differently.
What became clear early on was that hunting was and would always be more of an aesthetic and social experience than anything else. Our trips generally began with a long drive to a rural, conservative farming area or other. We’d have dinner at a restaurant in town. As a 12-year-old, I didn’t have long hair as some of my friends did, but I did sport a longish Glenn Campbell look. It wasn’t a good look. Still, I was not prepared for the feeling I experienced when a waitress at an Italian place called Louis Cairo’s asked my brother and me, “What would you two girls like to eat?”
Moments like these made it evident to me that hunting would entail entering a different but equally wondrous world of sorts. We’d sleep in an old trailer, get up in the cold, foggy dark and walk out to the duck blinds through ponds with quicksand-like mud. Once the sun came up, the beauty of the wetlands stretched out around us: a place of water and islands, tules and smartweed, hawks and cormorants.
For hours, in a barrel blind set in the ground, my dad and I would stare up at the sky looking for ducks. When the hunting was quiet, we would break our vigil to have chicken bouillon from a “Land of the Giants” thermos. It was time outside of time with my dad. He is gone now, but the thermos still sits in my kitchen cabinet decades later, albeit useless now.
On the rare occasion that I did kill a duck, it didn’t bother me in the least. It bothered some of my friends back then—and probably even more of them now. “Bother” was, of course, a bit of a code word.
“Doesn’t it bother you to kill something so beautiful?” was always the question. “And with a gun; it seems like an unfair fight.”
On the latter point, I’m not so sure. Ducks are fast; they bob and weave, they fly high, in the fog, or just not at all. It’s more than fair.
As to the former point, perhaps the best defense of hunting I have come across was made by the author Ken Kesey. His point, as I understood it, was that with hunting, at least, you must be conscious of the fact that something must die for you to eat it. Many times, as a child and adult, I have had to pick up a not-quite-dead duck from the pond and wring its neck until it was dead. And there was, subsequently, the plucking and the gutting, all by hand. It was and is a very visceral realization of what exactly is going on.
Conversely, picking up a skirt steak at the grocery store, you can blithely go about furthering your survival at the expense of some cow without the slightest thought as to what happened to that cow before it ended up in the shopping cart. While the meat packing industry has come a long way from Upton Sinclair’s days, I’d venture to say that raising, killing, and processing cattle is still a fairly ugly proposition.
There is still another argument to be made. If I kill an elk for food, is that less moral than that elk being killed by a wolf? The elk will be eaten by something; that is certain. Does it matter on the grand scale of morality what eats it?
Of course, vegans can easily dispense with arguments of both hunter and meat shopper. To that I would say: you win. However, I don’t see the world’s appetite for meat—whether due to evolutionary forces or just habits—going away anytime soon, if ever. On the other end of the spectrum, trophy hunters—those who kill not for meat but for wall hangings—don’t have much of a moral foothold here at all.
Guns—for the most part—are implicit in hunting. So, hunters, myself included, certainly don’t want the ability to “bear arms” to go away. The frustrating thing about the gun debate is that some gun rights proponents have come to see it as binary: that unless the right is absolute, it is somehow being taken away. But where else in life do we live in absolutes? Plenty of individual rights—free speech is an example—survive swimmingly with common sense boundaries to ensure the rights of the larger society.
For argument’s sake, let’s consider the Second Amendment absolute. Would my being able to buy and shoot a shoulder-mount rocket-propelled grenade launcher be reasonable, or desirable? I might get a boyish thrill in punching a hole in a hillside, but it doesn’t seem like much of a thrill, or “right,” to give up for the greater good of not having grenades exploding in the hills by my neighborhood.
Hunters and most recreational gun users realize that common sense has a place in life and that putting some boundaries on gun rights isn’t going to make guns go away. The number of people who die in cars every year is comparable to those who die by firearms (roughly 37,000 – 40,000). Over the years, we have instituted all kinds of boundaries and rules regarding cars to lower the fatality rate. Cars don’t even have the relative advantage that arms do in actually being specified in the Bill of Rights. Still, does anyone think cars are going away anytime soon?
In the meantime, while the debate rages, I hope more people get a chance to go hunting in some wild place. For the most part, hunting boils down to just spending time in beautiful country. You just happen to be holding a gun.
Hunting with a father or a son, a mother or daughter, or just a friend is an experience that simplifies a relationship, lets it build slowly, intricately, and with only the natural world bearing witness.