These days it’s impossible for an American citizen fortunate enough to have been born with a functioning mind not to worry about guns and the men who love them, and the innocent victims some of those gun-lovers kill.
National Rifle Association spokesman Wayne LaPierre, who tends to blame school shootings on rap music, has accused the government, aided by the media, of attempting to discredit firearms enthusiasts by issuing propaganda worthy of the Nazis. Then there’s Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist host of “Infowars,” ranting to his radio followers that the Sandy Hook school shooting of 26 people, 20 of them first-graders, was “a giant hoax. … The whole thing was fake.” Jones is now being sued by some of the bereaved families for claiming that the massacre was staged, using actors hired by the government – all part of a plot to set the stage for seizing our guns.
LaPierre strikes me as a brazen profiteer – he made more than $5 million in compensation from the NRA in 2015 – and Jones is either deranged or evil, or both. Because of such men, too many of us who long for rational gun laws have given up hope, concluding that the legions of gullible citizens influenced by people such as LaPierre and Jones carry so much political weight that meaningful legislation has become impossible.
I thought that, too, until a man I’d done a professional favor for invited me to hunt turkeys on a ranch in West Texas.
There were six of us in the hunting party, and on our first morning we were up well before first light, ate steak and egg breakfasts, and set out, two to a pickup, to hunt. My partner was Robert, the man who had invited me. As we bounced along a dirt road bordering the Concho River, he told me the particulars of his brand new full-choke, 12-gauge Remington and the super-magnum shells it fired. Then he asked about my gun, and complimented my sense of family loyalty for choosing to use my grandfather’s 12-gauge, Ithaca side-by-side.
“Isn’t this it?” Robert said.
“What?” I asked.
“Turkey hunting! Guns! The most damn fun it’s possible for a human being to have!”
That morning we did have fun. I bagged a gobbler. Robert called it in and, at a range of 30 yards, the kill was clean. Two or three miles away and another hour later, Robert called in a pair of gobblers and killed the larger one, a bird of well over 20 pounds sporting a 10-inch beard.
We were the first pickup back to the ranch house. The second vehicle arrived half an hour later, and one of the hunters had killed a gobbler while the other had missed a difficult shot. The third truck soon came in, and nobody in it had seen or heard a turkey.
In mid-morning, after the three bagged birds had been dressed and plucked, two six-packs of beer came out of the ranch house, along with six .22 rifles. For three hours, behind a large barn, we shot at paper targets fastened to bales of straw.
After lunch, we drove in two trucks to the river, with five revolvers and plenty of ammunition. We parked on a streamside meadow where the Concho ran deep and slow, and the afternoon routine was simple. One man at a time was stationed upstream to throw sticks of driftwood into the water while the rest sat in the shade of cottonwoods, blazing away at the sticks as they floated by, cheering hits and scoffing at misses. From a distance, it must have sounded like a war zone.
I spent three days and nights at the ranch and talked at length with my companions about ethical hunting, politics, spectator sports, law, medicine and, of course, guns. We spent many hours shooting at paper targets, driftwood and empty cans, using up at least as much ammunition as all the Clint Eastwood movies ever made. Yet none of these gun-lovers had a single positive word to say about either the NRA or self-serving demagogues such as LaPierre and Jones. They were intelligent, articulate and not afraid of stating their views, and there have to be tens of thousands of people like them in the West.
A week later, a school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, ended with eight students and two teachers dead. Unlike the aftermath of the horrific shooting at Parkland High School in Florida, public outrage seemed almost muted. Then on May 25, it happened again, this time in Indiana: A middle-school student shot two people, including the teacher who bravely tackled him before he could shoot more.
Please, fellow hunters, summon the courage to speak up. Make yourselves known. If enough of you do, common sense might just stand a chance.
Michael Baughman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Oregon.