Sportsmen have a lot to lose in the debate over firearms. And nation's largest gun advocacy group isn't doing them any favors.
As a parent, news of the Newtown tragedy last month reminded me of the most sobering fact I know: that my time with my son is finite, and any moment together could be our last. My heart aches for the friends and families of the victims.
As a hunter, the news unleashed in me a different kind of sadness. For a large and growing population, the shootings confirmed a violent, inaccurate stereotype about American gun ownership. I know because seven years ago, I, too, held this view.
That's not to say that I'm upset about renewed calls for gun control. On the contrary, I think stricter gun control is long overdue. Like many hunters, I believe that owning a gun is a very serious responsibility, one that warrants oversight. I want guns and I want gun control, and I believe there's a way our nation can have both.
Unfortunately, when the details of upcoming bills get hashed out behind closed doors later this year, there probably won't be anyone in the room to represent gun owners like me. We sportsmen have done ourselves a disservice by allowing the National Rifle Association to become synonymous with gun owners. The NRA's outright rejection of almost all gun control is unreasonable. Hunters have a lot to lose in the upcoming debate over gun legislation. But because we're already subject to firearm regulations by our state fish and game agencies, we have a lot to offer the debate, too.
NRA members often argue against gun control by claiming that any barrier to weapons procurement - expanded background checks, waiting periods, a permanent ban on assault weapons - would mark the start of a slippery slope. It would just be a matter of time, they say, until my pump-action shotgun or bolt-action rifle would be banned, too.
I believe that most people are capable of understanding the difference between, say, a semi-automatic rifle with a high-capacity barrel magazine like the one used in Newtown and a pump-action shotgun. No respectable, law-abiding sportsman would ever hunt with the former. There is no reason why we couldn't have laws that prohibit the sale of some guns, while permitting the sale of others. In fact, we already have this. Machine guns, or fully automatic weapons -which fire repeatedly while the trigger is held down - are already banned.
Some will call me naive, but I also believe that most Americans are capable of understanding the value of guns. I grew up just outside of Washington, D.C., unaware that guns could be owned and used responsibly. Then I moved to Oregon, met a slew of hunters, and became fascinated by their intimate knowledge of nature. I learned to fly-fish, which taught me to look at rivers in a new way. Soon I began to wonder if hunting could teach me to read landscapes. After I completed a gun safety course, I bought my first gun - a pump-action 20-gauge shotgun. Six years and two additional guns later, I am proud to call myself a hunter.
I own guns because I want to put food on the table and feel closer to the land. There is actually an uplifting side to the weapons locked in my upstairs closet. For me, learning to hunt has been an empowering, life-affirming experience. It's a chance to participate in an ecosystem, rather than merely watch it from afar. It gives me a personal stake in the health of wildlife populations and their habitat. It gives me an appreciation for my food, particularly meat, and an understanding of all that it entails.
My son is just a baby now, but when he's old enough, I want him to get to experience all of this himself. The good news is: he can, even if we enact strict laws requiring background checks and waiting periods and banning high-capacity magazines. In fact, those laws could help keep him safe in the meantime.
Besides, if he hunts, my son will have to accept all sorts of regulations about guns and ammunition, regardless of gun control. For example, where we live, in Oregon, semi-automatic rifles that hold more than five rounds may not be used for hunting. And nationwide, duck and goose hunters may not use lead shot, which is toxic to migratory birds. Some hunters grumble about these rules from time to time but we know that they serve an important purpose.
As sportsmen, we ought to be engaged in the gun control debate. We understand the value of a gun-based tradition as well as the crucial need for reasonable limits. When it comes to guns, we represent a much-needed middle ground.