Guns for Fun

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Several readers who use firearms for recreational purposes are responding to this note. This reader’s first name is, in fact, Hunter:

Your reader seems to think that people who own firearms for protection and people who shoot recreationally are two separate camps. My experience is they overlap pretty heavily, and it doesn’t really matter where they live. I live in a suburb of Houston, and my friends and family I go shooting with genuinely enjoy it for the challenge (the same way a golfer enjoys hitting a ball into a hole). But we keep those same guns available for protection at home if need be.

Another reader inferred that children getting access to unsecured firearms drives up mortality rates in rural areas. While any child dying is tragic, and any adult responsible for it should be punished, the CDC recorded 39 children aged 5 to 14 dying from accidental gunshots in 2013. [CB note: A more recent study published in October by David Hemenway and Sara Solnick found that 110 American children ages 0 to 14 die in accidental shootings every year.] (Accidental gunshots didn’t even show up in the top ten causes of accidental deaths for other age groups.) That means out of (at least) 100 million gun owners [estimates vary], 99.999961 percent somehow managed to not cause the accidental death of a child. That seems like a pretty responsible group overall, but the media focuses on the very small minority of gun owners who are not.

The following reader is from a town of 25 people in southeastern Kansas, “where both firearms and hunting are prevalent”:

There are differences between “sportsmen” and “recreational gun owners.”

Sportsmen use firearms in pursuit of a greater activity. Many of my friends load up their hunting rifles and set out on a search for deer each fall. Others pack muzzleloaders, which are usually single-shot blackpowder rifles—the modern-day equivalent of muskets. Even more prefer compound bows or crossbows, which add a greater level of difficulty to the hunt. Different kinds of hunting requires different kinds of firearms. I hunt birds, so I keep several shotguns of different gauge and weight. In each hunter’s case, however, the larger purpose of the hunt remains the same, regardless of their preferred choice of the killing instrument.

For recreational gun owners, the purpose of the activity is the ownership and firing of firearms. The joy of gun ownership for them is much more comparable to the joy of collecting classic cars than to the joy of hunting. In my opinion, there is a lot of identity wrapped up in recreational gun ownership. The same might be said for conceal-and-carry permit holders. Just as one might be a fly fisherman, a golfer, or a gamer, they are a gun owner. Some people argue that there is sport hiding somewhere within the shooting range’s paper targets, but I struggle to see much in it.

A single person can be both a sportsman and a recreational gun owner, but the distinction is worth emphasizing. In both instances, individuals’ identities are tied up in their collecting or hunting. I believe that this is why there is such staunch resistance to gun-control legislation from these groups; taking away a single firearm from them takes away a portion of their identity. Hunters, for fear of losing access to their preferred pastimes, quickly get caught up in the NRA’s arguments as well, but for a markedly different reason.

This reader doesn’t seem caught up in the NRA:

I am a recreational gun owner who uses shotguns and rifles for hunting. I also support stronger gun control legislation. I find that most people in my camp become nervous about gun legislation when registries are mentioned, and this makes us nervous for the same reason that people get nervous when they hear the NSA is collecting phone metadata. They are concerned that raw “data” removed from context can paint them adversely.  

Take my father, for example. He has been an avid hunter for most of his life, now in his 70s. When my uncle (also an avid hunter for 50+ years) died two years ago, he left all his guns to my father. This means my father owns two lifetimes worth of recreational gun enthusiasts’ arms (well over 20). From a purely numerical perspective, he might look like a maniac secretly building an arsenal in the backwoods. In reality, he isn’t a threat to anything but turkeys and deer. And statistically speaking, most gun crimes are committed with handguns and not long arms, but this relevant fact is hardly ever mentioned.