Editorial feature: Gun control, “boomers,” & the future of hunting

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  March 2013:

Editorial feature:  Gun control,  “boomers,” & the future of hunting   by Merritt Clifton & Kim Bartlett


“In the matter of gun control,  our main concern is rightly for the human victims of mass shootings,”  wrote veteran journalist Dick Meister on January 18,  2013 for California Progress Report.   “But what of the other defenseless animals who die at the hands of humans?  What of the hunting rifles that are cited as legitimate simply because they are not rapid-fire weapons,  the guns that are used by hunters to kill so many of our fellow beings in the name of sport?   “There are people who find great fun––many claim even deep meaning––in hunting down and killing fellow creatures of the winged and four-legged variety,”  Meister continued.  “They are animal killers.  They are not sportsmen.  They find it amusing to stalk and kill other animals.  For some,  it’s even more than amusing.  They find hunting to be downright spiritual,  if not orgasmic.” Now 80 years old,  Meister grew up at a time when the prevailing attitudes toward animals closely reflected the American agrarian heritage.  Fewer than 25% of Americans were more than one generation removed from rural living––almost the reverse of today.  Breaking into journalism nearly 60 years ago as a sportswriter,  Meister did not cover hunting,  fishing,  and trapping,  but shared page space with those who did.  Moving to the labor beat,  Meister worked for mostly editorially conservative media including United Press International,  Associated Press,  the San Jose Mercury News,  the Oakland Tribune,  the San Francisco Chronicle,  KQED,  and Pacifica Radio. Meister has written critically of hunting before,  but chiefly within the past 10 years.  First Meister became exasperated that former U.S. President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney at times seemed more interested in shooting animals and catering to the hunting lobby than in exercising leadership.  Later Meister noted that performance-enhancing drug-using former baseball star Barry Bonds showed a similar lack of sporting ethics in his post-baseball career as a celebrity trophy hunter and shill for hunting rifles.  Meister may,  in short,  be considered a reasonably representative voice for mainstream middle American values,  who like much of the mainstream public finds sport hunting to be increasingly at odds with those values. “Once,  a long time ago,”  Meister wrote in his column about Bonds,  “we had to hunt and kill in order to survive. In today’s circumstances,  making sport of inflicting pain,  suffering and death on other animals who are less able to defend themselves is cruel and unnecessary––in a word,  barbaric.” The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in August 2012 announced survey results showing that the numbers of licensed hunters in the U.S. had increased 9% since 2006,  to 13.7 million:  6% of the U.S. population 16 years old and older.   But, while hunting advocates celebrated the findings,  the August 2012 report also showed that not more than 11% of the residents of any of the nine U.S. demographic regions hunt,  and as many as 10% hunt in only two regions.  Outside of the “West North Central” and “East South Central” regions,  not more than 7% of the residents of any region hunt. Further,  the August 2012 report showed that the national increase in hunting participation was driven by a whopping 39% increase––600,000 hunters,  half of the total increase––in the “East South Central” region alone,  which includes the Applachian states,  Mississippi,  and Alabama.   Since these states have only about 10.5 million human residents to begin with,  circa 4% of the total U.S. population,  and already had a high rate of hunting participation,  the finding must be considered suspect. Outside of the “East South Central” region,  the numbers of hunters increased marginally in half the states,  but decreased marginally in the other half. The August 2012 report did not stratify hunting participation by age group,  but appeared to confirm nonetheless that hunting is in steep decline among all generations younger than the post-World War II “Baby Boom” generation, whose birth years were 1946-1964. The Fish & Wildlife Service has conducted similar surveys since 1955,  when the first-born “Boomers” were nine years old,  just beginning to use BB guns.  The numbers of hunters increased rapidly until 1977,  when the last-born “Boomers” were first becoming eligible to hunt deer.  From then until the first-born “Boomers” reached retirement age, the numbers of hunters fell––and the median age of hunters increased parallel to the median age of “Boomers.” Hunters,  according to other Fish & Wildlife Service-sponsored research,   typically hunt less often as they age, from their mid-thirties on,  except that they usually spend more days afield for a few years post-retirement.  They typically do not actually shoot more animals.  For many,  hunting later in life is “armed nature-walking.”  But,  still identifying themselves as hunters,   for several years they have more free time available to spend on hunting.  Within five years of retirement,  however,  most hunters hunt markedly less,  due to declining health and to conserve fixed incomes. With about 10% of the “Boomers” already retired,  the numbers of hunting licenses sold were expected to increase proportionately from 2006 to 2011,  when the first “Boomers” reached age 65.  This occurred.  Based on demographics alone,  the hunting population is likely to remain relatively steady for the next five to ten years,  then fall precipitously as “Boomer” retirees age out of participation.

Declining social acceptability

There is no hint in the demographic data that younger people have taken up hunting at anywhere close to the numbers that would be required to replace the “Boomers.” The decline in hunting participation among post-“Boomers” parallels the rise of animal advocacy in recent decades, but any direct influence of pro-animal campaigning appears to have been marginal.  More than 80% of animal advocates and animal advocacy donors are female and urban;  more than 95% of hunters are male,  and more than half of them are rural or semi-rural. Rather than directly persuading hunters to give up hunting,  animal advocacy appears to have shifted the norms of society so that hunting has gradually lost social acceptability.  Fewer men hunt because fewer men they know hunt. More men appear to have reached the view,  expressed by Dick Meister,  that recreationally killing animals is unsportsmanlike. Relatively little animal advocacy activity has directly targeted hunting.  The most aggressive anti-hunting efforts, the hunter harassment campaigns led by current Humane Society of the U.S. president Wayne Pacelle in 1990-1994 when he was national director of the Fund for Animals,  backfired spectacularly.  Instead of discouraging hunters from hunting, attempting to disrupt deer and waterfowl hunting awakened hunters as a political constituency.  Within five years every U.S. state had passed anti-hunter harassment legislation.  The aroused pro-hunting lobby went on to pass “right to hunt” amendments to 16 state constitutions,  with more such amendments introduced in each legislative session. Pacelle since joining HSUS has favored much less confrontational tactics against hunting.  Successful animal advocacy against hunting,  including campaigns led by Pacelle,  spotlight practices that even deer and waterfowl hunters often consider cruel and unethical,  including hounding bears and pumas,  pigeon shoots,  and poisoning wildlife. Demographics predict that as hunter numbers level off and then plummet  during the next decade,  deer and waterfowl hunters in particular will remain a politically influential constituency.  What becomes of legislative efforts to restrain or prohibit other forms of hunting depends largely on the extent to which deer and waterfowl hunters expend resources to defend practices that they too find ethically questionable. Among the forms of hunting that even deer and waterfowl hunters often find distasteful,  yet defend to keep deer hunting and waterfowling from coming under attack,  are trapping,  hounding in any form,  “hunting” captive animals, and holding killing contests targeting species such as squirrels,  rabbits,  and prairie dogs.  Far fewer deer and waterfowl hunters have ethical objections to hunting wild predators such as coyotes,  wolves and pumas,  who are widely seen as threats to deer and elk herds,  but many hunters do object to using “unsportsmanlike” methods to kill predators.  Most hunters accept bowhunting and hunting with muzzleloading firearms,  but find hunting with spears unacceptable because spear hunters are much less likely to effect a quick kill. In addition,  many and perhaps most deer hunters and waterfowlers share the perspective of most non-hunters that no one should be hunting or otherwise trespassing on posted private property,  and no one should be shooting into posted private property.  Many deer hunters and waterfowlers have “war stories” similar to those of non-hunters about incidents in which their lives and property were jeopardized by reckless “slob hunters.”  Many deer hunters and waterfowlers agree that the percentage of “slob hunters” appears to have increased as the total numbers of hunters have decreased, and see the offensive behavior of “slob hunters” as almost as serious a threat to the future of hunting as the lack of youth participation. A parallel may be drawn with hunter attitudes toward gun control.  Very few deer hunters and waterfowlers use semi-automatic rifles with large-capacity magazines,  or heavy-caliber sniper rifles,  or handguns of any sort.  Most hunters might have few objections,  if any,  to restricting or prohibiting the possession and use of firearms that are practical only for use in killing or threatening people,  if hunters felt that allowing any gun to be banned was not a start toward taking away their hunting weapons. Funded heavily by the gun industry,  the National Rifle Association and the rest of the pro-gun lobby maintain influence in part by cultivating strong alliances with pro-hunting organizations.  Together,  pro-gun and pro-hunting organizations manage to keep hunters in a constant state of alarm,  which helps the organizations’ fundraising efforts. Yet surveys of deer hunter and waterfowler perspectives on why they hunt show that these hunters often have as much in common with animal advocates as with many of the participants in other types of hunting whom the deer hunters and waterfowlers help to defend.  As well as expressing discomfort with trapping,  hounding,  and killing captive wildlife, deer hunters and waterfowlers tend to mention that they prefer eating animals who had a natural life in the wild,  over eating those who were factory-farmed. Such hunters are still hunting chiefly for fun.  Admit it to themselves or not,  on some level they enjoy killing animals. They are not hunting just to avoid becoming vegetarian.  They are not fellow travelers with the animal rights movement,  and mostly never will be.  But neither are they participants in such overtly sadistic practices as pigeon shoots,  massacring prairie dogs for target practice,  and setting dogs on coyotes,  foxes,  and pigs in “chase pens.”  To many deer hunters and waterfowlers,  such pursuits fail to meet the definition of “hunting,”  since the victim animals have little or no chance to escape,  and are rarely eaten afterward. Hunters together with all members of their households constitute less than 20% of the U.S. electorate,  yet retain grossly disproportionate political influence for two reasons,  of which alliance with the gun industry is actually the least important.  Well-funded as the NRA and other pro-gun organizations are,  and as many politically prominent members as Safari Club International claims,  they would have no more clout than many other marginal causes and factions if not for geography. There are now more vegetarians than hunters,  and far more vegans than participants in trapping and hounding. Vegetarians and vegans,  however,  are relatively concentrated in about half a dozen major metropolitan areas, overlapping perhaps a dozen states,  which mostly have not been in political sway for at least a generation.  No politician needs to cater to vegetarians and vegans as a key “swing” constituency. Hunters by contrast are broadly distributed throughout the conservative rural and semi-rural “red” states which form the base of the Republican constituency.  The combined human populations of six of the most strongly pro-hunting states amount to less than the human populations of the Los Angeles and San Francisco metropolitan areas,  yet those six states have 12 U.S. Senators,  while the entire state of California has just two. In addition,  among the states with the most hunters per capita are the “swing” states of Indiana,  Iowa,  Michigan, Nevada,  New Mexico,  North Carolina,  Ohio,  Pennsylvania,  and Virginia,  which Democrats must win to keep the Presidency and to hold their present slim majority within the Senate. The disproportionality of hunter influence is so extreme that even though polls have shown that up to 78% of all U.S. voters oppose hunting in National Wildlife Refuges,  at least 321 of the current 553 National Wildlife Refuges now permit hunting––and more refuge hunting seasons were opened during the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama administrations than in all Republican administrations combined. Except that a lunatic used a formerly banned assault rifle to massacre 20 school children and six faculty on December 14,  2012 in Newtown,  Connecticut,  the present political landscape would not suggest much opportunity to pass new federal gun control legislation.  Certainly there is nothing to suggest that effective gun control legislation is likely to get through the present Congress if deer hunters and waterfowlers respond to the gun lobby appeals to stand against it. For that reason,  if no other,  animal advocates who favor gun control legislation need to think twice about taking positions which conflate the gun control debate with opposition to hunting. There are hints that the electoral landscape may favor opposition to the most egregiously cruel forms of hunting at the state level,  in states which are not in political flux.  Several very strongly pro-hunting states have within the past 20 years prohibited chase pens,  “hog/dog rodeo,”  “canned hunts,”  hunting with remote-controlled weapons,  and pigeon shoots,  often at instigation of deer hunters and waterfowlers who did not want these practices to become the public image of hunting. There are also indications that hunter political strength in some of the “swing” states has already waned.  From 1991 through 2001,  Illinois,  Iowa,  North Carolina,  Ohio,  and New Mexico all experienced drops in hunting participation of at least 19%.  “Boomer” retirements may have temporarily slowed the decline,  but within another 10-15 years the political climate for hunters could be considerably different. Finally,  regardless of the opportunities to pass legislation,  opponents of hunting can continue to erode the social acceptability of recreationally killing animals.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS Kim Bartlett, a well-known animal activist and incubator for several animal defense organizations in Europe, Asia, Africa, South America and the Mideast, serves as publisher of ANIMAL PEOPLE.  Merritt Clifton is an award-winning environmental journalist and the publication’s editor in chief.  Both founded AP in 1992. 

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