[Listen to an audio version of this blog HERE.]
This week we're taking a sharp left turn into the world of guns and hunting. "But Sarah, I thought you were vegan?" you might be thinking. Yes, I haven't consumed animal products for years, for myriad reasons, the most tangible being that I don't believe factory farming is sustainable. I know the havoc it wrecks on the environment, and my humble opinion is that factory farming is just kind of...gross. I'm vegan, but I believe people should be able to hunt, for no better reason than hunters at least earn their meat. I'm pretty damn liberal, but I believe people should be able to own guns. The seeming contradictions inherent in the above statements exist in all of us, I promise.
I'm not afraid of guns, but then again, I've never stared down the barrel of one. Where I'm from, guns are a means to an end. Guns were for shooting clay pigeons and wild game. Guns meant my family had meat in the freezer. Guns, in short, meant food. I remember attending a gun safety course with my dad and brother when I was in grade school. Guns were treated with gravity: "they are tools, but they can also be weapons," we were told, "wield this tool/weapon with care." I learned early on to respect guns and use caution around them. When I was 18, I moved away to larger cities where guns were treated differently. Guns were weapons, and shootings were common occurrences.
Controlling guns is hard, and controlling illegal guns is even harder. I don't know a good answer to the problem of gun control, but I do know the right answer is somewhere in the middle. The answer is not "guns for everyone!" and it's certainly not, "all guns are illegal." Most Americans agree that there should be stricter gun laws and required background checks for gun purchasers. In a May 2019 Quinnipiac poll, 91% of Democrats said gun laws should be stricter, as did 59% of independents, and 32% of Republicans. Almost three-quarters (73%) of respondents also said more needs to be done to address gun violence.
An October 2019 Gallup poll showed the same thing: 64% of respondents agree with stricter gun laws. In addition, the American public has a fairly negative view of the National Rifle Association (NRA), with only 18% of respondents scoring the NRA "very favorably." And when Gallup asked gun owners WHY they own guns, 63% responded "for personal protection" while 40% responded "hunting" and 5% responded "family tradition/heirloom/I like guns/2nd amendment right." (The percentages in this poll added up to greater than 100%, because respondents could select more than one answer.)
Obviously, guns are a hot-button issue, and the Democratic party more strongly supports gun control/gun restrictions. Most of the time, I agree with Democratic social stances-gay marriage, abortion rights, right to work, etc. And while I certainly don't condone violence, the right to bear arms is an inextricable human right, no less valid than my right to an abortion or my right to marry whomever I please.
Our beliefs are largely shaped by culture, and the culture I grew up in was one in which hunting was as normal as eating breakfast. Guns were never seen as morally wrong, and the logical, Midwestern attitude is to blame whomever is wielding the weapon for whatever harm that weapon produces. This is nearly too obvious to write down, but guns don't harm anyone until a person picks up the gun and shoots.
A hefty portion of Americans own guns for recreational activities. And as a vegan, it may seem intuitive for me to oppose hunting wild game, but that isn't the case, either. Controlling the population of any species involves ecological, political, moral, and ethical considerations. Humans are the ones encroaching on natural habitats, but controlling the human population is an even more controversial idea than hunting wildlife. Controlling the population of deer, for example, decreases the risk of environmental destruction and overpopulation. Introducing natural predators is risky and controversial, and using other population control tactics, such as contraception, is incredibly costly.
Cornell University actually conducted an experimental sterilization project to combat exploding deer populations near Ithaca, New York. The method used was tubal ligation, a form of sterilization which blocks Fallopian tubes and prevents egg cells from reaching the uterus. The method proved to be effective, but was unbearably expensive and time consuming; the cost to sterilize each deer was a staggering $1,200. As part of the study, 77 deer were sterilized, meaning the study in total cost the university over $92,000. To illuminate the cost of doing this nationwide, there are ~30 million white-tailed deer in America, roughly half of which we can safely assume are female. Spending millions of dollars on contraception/sterilization is unjustifiable, especially since hunting has proven to be a more effective and cost efficient population control method.
Larry Voyles, Director of the Arizona Game and Fish Department and former president of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, testified that the collective reach and impact of the 50 state game and fish agencies raises $5.6 billion annually toward conservation through their collective annual budgets. Hunting is not only an effective wildlife management tool, but provides a natural source of meat to hunters and their families while funding wildlife and land conservation. These funds are funneled into state parks, animal refuges, and the work carried out by park rangers biologists.
Sometimes, people will turn up their nose at the idea of eating wild game, but it's no secret that factory farming is cruel, unhealthy, and a threat to our environment. One of my friends recently postulated that most hunters he knows are more in touch with nature than the vegans in his life, and he's probably right. If everyone who eats meat had to hunt, kill, gut, and process their meat themselves, we'd have a lot more vegans.
It's interesting too, that fewer Americans hunt today than ever before in recent history. Data gathered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service show that only five percent of Americans—about 12.5 million individuals—consider themselves hunters today, down from nine percent in 2001 and 15 percent in 1996. While fewer Americans are hunting, public support for hunting is actually on the rise. A recent study found that 78 percent of Americans support hunting today, versus 73 percent in 1995. Eighty percent of respondents agreed that “hunting has a legitimate place in modern society,” and the percent of Americans indicating disapproval of hunting declined from 22 percent in 1995 to just 16 percent in 2007.
The problem with the controversy surrounding hunting and guns is that we all want the same things: healthy and sustainable food, safe communities, and fair regulations that don't infringe on our human rights. Whether or not you believe guns are good or bad, we must recognize that gun ownership is a right. We must also recognize that stricter gun laws make sense, and that there is little need for any civilian to own assault rifles. Most Americans agree with all of this. We must also recognize that condemning hunters for animal cruelty or brutality is short-sighted at best. Ignoring the benefits of hunting is as egregious as ignoring the severe costs of factory farming.
My point in all of this is: if you wouldn't hunt your own meat, it doesn't really make sense for you to consume it. Guns aren't unilaterally bad, though it does make sense to tamp down on the sale of firearms. And perhaps most importantly, just because you don't agree with someone's way of life doesn't mean that their way of life is wrong. Below is a poem I wrote about hunting. (Read it and weep.) xoxo
each autumn my father and brother
bundle in orange and walk with their rifles
through forests to climb high in the trees
some days they come home empty-handed
but on good days
they bring home their prey
solid deer carcasses still warm with life
we'd rejoice because deer meant meat
which meant food which meant dinner
was a certainty for a few weeks at least
I walked by the gun cabinet every day
for eighteen years and fear never
entered by body guns only harm us
when someone breaks open the cabinet
loads the rifle and shoots, guns
only scare us when we don’t need food
when they become an accessory
not a necessity when sick, mangled brains
take life away for no good reason
the hunters, elbow deep in deer blood
know what it looks like to die
to see life draining slowing from the eyes
of their prey they know what it is to take
and they do so with grace, give thanks
to the bodies they carry on backs
gut and cut open, for eighteen years
I didn’t know to be scared
but I moved away and grew up fast
when I realized guns
don’t mean the same thing to everyone
guns can mean violence, premature deaths
hospital visits, trauma, hatred
for those who are different
I don’t really care about guns
never owned one and I don’t really
want too, but I do know
there isn’t one answer, and guns
aren't the cause of our cultural cancer
they’re just a tool, and if they all disappeared
we’d build something else
to destroy each other with, I’m sure if it
the hunters began with blunt spears
and bows my brother still carries his arrows
through deep, crunching snow to sit in the forest
and watch the earth move, that’s beautiful
we were born to be hunters
just not of each other
each autumn when the leaves turn gold
and the air grows cold
and earth starts to slumber
I think of the hunters with love
and I think of their prey with adoration
reconciling conflicting emotions
is one of those pesky, messy human
conditions, I remember the sun
hanging low over sleeping
cornfields, tucked in deep snow
a single deer sweeping her head to look
in my eyes I stopped breathing
so I wouldn’t surprise her
the hunters behind me paused too
rifles silently hung over shoulders
as she pranced away, safe
we let that moment sit on our skin
for a while, no words can take me
back to that breath, but I do know death
is nothing to fear, that’s the heart of it, really
each autumn, my father and brother
bundle in orange and walk with their rifles
through forests to climb high in the trees