Guns for Hunting People Are Different: Legislation Should Reflect That

A gun owner and hunter explains why simply regulating magazines won't work, and why policymakers should pull assault rifles out of circulation entirely.
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Jeff Mitchell/Reuters

As a gun guy who's also a journalist and professor in a town sometimes called "The Peoples Republic of Ann Arbor," I meet plenty of people who think I should be ashamed of myself. But in failing to address the challenges presented by the latest massacre of innocents, United States senators have done what nobody else has managed to do: make me, for the first time, truly embarrassed about the company I'm lumped with, including theirs.

In most states, it is illegal to hunt animals or birds with more than six rounds in a rifle or three in a shotgun. Why? Because if you can't kill within those limits you need remedial marksmanship (of the sort NRA Executive Vice President Wayne R. La Pierre might require to bring reportedly poor marksmanship up to snuff). If you've got ten or even 30-shot replaceable clips, then you're holding arms for hunting humans--equipment that brings the Second Amendment face to face with the Sixth Commandment.*

I suspect that one reason indirect controls like tightened background checks repeatedly fail is that lots of people don't think they will be sufficiently effective. Neither do I. Assault rifles are rifles of mass destruction. We shouldn't be trying to make it safe to have them on the street. It's too late for that. We need to restrict homicide weapons to those licensed to hunt humans, in law enforcement and the military.

One way to do that is to change manufacturing standards for guns as we did in barring vehicles without seatbelts or catalytic converters. Civilian weapons should be required to conform to the more humane rules for hunting game. No amount of legislative fiddling will prevent Rambo-styles clips from replacing small ones if the structure of the gun isn't changed. The answer is to return long guns to traditional magazines internal to the weapons, themselves, limited to hunting restrictions.

But even that won't address the most immediate issue of what to do with the estimated three million assault rifles out there. Here's the sort of conversation people like me have all the time, this one assembled from talks with hunting friends summed up here as Mr. Composite:

Mr. C--I understand you agree with Obama to take our guns away.

Me--No, just assault rifles; got one?

Mr. C--No, but I gave one to my grandson on his eleventh birthday and he took a nice little buck last fall.

Me--How many shots?

Mr. C--Two. One to stop, one for mercy.

Me--Kinda makes my point about not needing big clips, doesn't it?

Mr. C--But I paid $800 for that AR-15. For me that's big money.

Cities, towns, and counties across the country have experimented with weaponry turn-ins, with varying rewards and degrees of success. Los Angeles, for example, offered $150 for assault rifles, $100 for handguns, and $50 for everything else. A total 2,037 weapons including 75 assault rifles and two rocket launchers (yes, rocket launchers) went out of circulation. But this piecemeal, community-based approach is too slow to protect the victims of the next Newtown, and too small to entice the likes of Mr. C. The gun lobby's proposal to put armed guards in all our schools would cost about $3 billion. For that figure, we could offer to buy back all assault rifles at something like fair-market value.


I've been a gun guy all my life. I collected antiques as a teenager and still regret selling them. At the moment I own 11 locked-up guns, about average for the hunters I know. The number sounds utterly bizarre to non-gunners until I ask men about their neckties and women about shoes. Guns accrete over the years for some of the same reasons: gifts, new interests, old friends. For example, a 12 gauge semi-automatic is my sentimental first duck gun that I stopped using after falling in love with elegant side-by-side (two-shot) shotguns. There's a deer rifle that I use and another I bought 20 years ago. I thought every Michigan hunter should own a lever-action Winchester 30/30. For reasons I don't remember, I still have a beat-up 20 gauge single-shot that I gave to one of my sons.

I also have two handguns, and this is where things get sticky. Like assault rifles, pistols were designed for killing people, although we have them for all sorts of reasons. For example, I inherited the .38 caliber revolver my mother stowed away during World War II in case the German Wehrmacht landed on the beaches of lake Michigan near where we lived. The other I bought when the enraged "general" of a bogus charity "army" I had exposed appeared in the city room of the Baltimore Evening Sun (no security back then), pointed at me and bellowed that he intended "to kill that sneaky little peckerwood." A week later a normal-looking guy knocked at my door in the sort of neighborhood where you lived on $78 a week, asked where a neighbor was, went one floor down and executed her with a shot to the forehead.

Those two events were linked only by timing and mortality, but that was enough. At the nearest gun store, I asked for the best people killer, and was told "James Bond thinks it's a Walther PPK." Keeping it 40 years later, unfired after an initial test, is no more rational than the neckties we don't get rid of. Those pistols evoke fond memories of a strong mother and seminal reporting adventures and somehow, they stay put.

Do I favor handguns' remaining legal? Yes, except for the kind that are really assault rifles without stocks. For one thing, the huge sales boom in pistols represents a whole nation's understandable lunge for self-defense, largely against bad guys with the assault weapons we hear about all to often. For that reason, keeping the option open for handguns, at least for now, may make it easier to eliminate assault rifles. It also weakens the argument that by eliminating civilian war weapons we would disarm law-abiders to the advantage of outlaws. We should start with the main threat. When people feel less fearful, they may buy fewer pistols, too.


*This paragraph has been updated in two places, once for clarity and once to reflect the correct ranking of the commandment summarized as "thou shalt not kill."

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Charles R. Eisendrath is a University of Michigan professor and directs the Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellowships and the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists.

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