It’s general deer and elk season in Montana, or open rifle, as it’s sometimes called. I spent the weekend miles from cell and internet reception, walking through the mountains in search of deer and elk, a rifle strapped to my shoulder. Part of the appeal of hunting is the idea that you’ve escaped from civilization, but that notion can be dangerous if you forget you’re still part of the world.
I got into town late Sunday night and didn’t learn until morning that a man with a rifle had killed 26 people at a church in Texas. And it’s been just under two months since the slaughter in Las Vegas. There was also a mass shooting at a Walmart in the Denver suburb of Thornton and probably others I didn’t read about.
As a sportsman, I have to say that it’s long past time for us to stand up in support of stricter gun control laws. It’s not just about mass slaughter. Here in the West, we suffer from high rates of death by firearm because we live in a so-called suicide belt, with death by firearm the primary cause. In the United States, more people kill themselves with guns than by all other intentional methods combined. Even when you control for factors like mental illness, higher rates of gun ownership mean higher rates of suicide.
Let’s be frank: Hunters know that high-capacity magazines and semi-automatic rifles are unnecessary for our sport. These guns are weapons of war, designed to kill human beings. You could say the same about handguns. My dad often talks about carrying a sidearm for protection while hunting in serious grizzly bear country, but I tell him not to bother. Studies have shown that bear spray is more effective anyway, and there’s a good deal less collateral damage likely to be caused.
The National Rifle Association would have gun owners vote in unison, speaking with a single voice and thinking with a hive mind, all ginned up on fears of home invasions and government overreach. Any threat to the right to bear arms incurs the organization’s political wrath, and the career of any weak-kneed legislator who dares support gun control is likely to be brief.
The NRA may be powerful, but it’s not invincible. There’s a growing body of hunters who live by a different ethic, wilderness hunters who want to explore and protect our country’s wildest places and harvest lean, organic meat. We’re capable of drawing finer distinctions on the issue of gun control and supporting regulations that produce measurable results.
Let’s not, in our silence, allow ourselves to be painted over with the NRA’s broad, blood-soaked brush. In doing so, we lend our voices to a lobby that is more interested in protecting its bottom line than in saving innocent lives.
The evidence is clear on both of those counts. First, gun control does save lives. In 2016, the Epidemiologic Review undertook a meta-analysis that looked at data from 130 gun control studies. It didn’t look at single kinds of restriction but at a variety of measures, including licensing and buy-back programs. Its findings were clear: “The simultaneous implementation of laws targeting multiple firearms restrictions is associated with a reduction in firearms deaths.” Fewer people, then, will die if we restrict guns.
Second, the NRA, an organization that used to receive the vast majority of its funding from sportsmen, relies more and more on donations from the firearms industry. The estimates vary, but from 2005 to 2011, the firearms industry donated somewhere between $14.7 and $38.9 million to the NRA. In exchange, the NRA lobbies, markets and handles much of the public relations for the gun industry, peddling the kind of misinformation that stokes fear and drives gun sales.
Gun control faces many obstacles, whether it’s our political paralysis in the face of deep social problems or the influence of the firearms industry and its ability to manipulate us through advertising and misinformation. But we still have our voices, if only we have the courage to find them and speak up. We can’t be cowed by party lines or corporate influence.
We hunters pride ourselves on self-sufficiency, so let’s work from the ground up. That means looking at the facts, talking about it around the campfire, voting for candidates who aren’t in the NRA’s pocket, and donating dollars to organizations that help protect the things that actually are under threat—like our public lands.
Despite what the NRA might have us believe, hunting is not under attack, but our freedom from violence is.
Greg Luther is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a freelance writer in Missoula, Montana.