I was armed and dangerous that day, a kid with a rifle and something to prove. But that was then, and I was just a 10-year-old with a BB gun out in the woods. It was a glorious autumn afternoon. On a branch above me, a bird was singing its heart out.
In our exurban New York community, my schoolmates talked knowledgeably of handling shotguns and .22s, and of the hunting culture their dads were introducing them to. There were no firearms in my house, so the BB gun, borrowed from a friend, would have to do.
When hunting is called “sport,” it becomes wrapped in the same benign mantle as our familiar, non-lethal games of athletic activity and physical competition.
I squeezed the trigger. The bird on the branch stopped singing. It toppled over and fell with a muffled thud into the dry leaves covering the ground. For an instant, the world went completely still; to this day, I carry some of that stillness with me.
Gun advocates often cite the culture of hunting as important to rural life and generational bonding. But in the debate over guns and their place in society, hunting, like everything else gun-related, should get a closer look.
Perhaps it starts with how hunting is labeled. When hunting is called “sport,” it becomes wrapped in the same benign mantle as our familiar, non-lethal games of athletic activity and physical competition. You could almost forget that firearms hunting involves killing and the use of a piece of equipment that confers a totally one-sided advantage. “Sport,” on the other hand, by its very design and philosophy, insists that teams and individuals be equipped identically and abide by the same rules on a level playing field.
Where is the “sport” when a hunter has a high-powered firearm and no fear of what an animal might do to him? We instinctively acknowledge that mismatch by treating bow-and-arrow hunting as more “sporting” than hunting with a gun. (Bullfighting seems more sporting still: at least the matador, unlike a hunter, is putting his body on the line. And bull riding even more so: here, the rider, not the animal, is the one likely to be hurt.) If, as some hunters assert, it’s really about the skills of tracking and being out in the natural world, then shooting with a camera should satisfy as much as with a gun.
Under scrutiny, firearms hunting becomes less about sport than power — the power to kill animals in the name of recreation. (I exclude hunting for the purposes of food gathering, or culling.) With movies and video games in mind, critics often say that along with any tightening of gun laws we must examine the larger issue of violence in American culture. Fair enough; in so doing, perhaps we’d see that just as Hollywood offers up violence as entertainment, hunting offers up violence as diversion.
As any good hunter would tell you, when shooting to kill, gun use is never a game.
In thinking how to better understand guns and violence, language is one place to start. To call hunting “sport” is more than a misnomer: it’s an imprecision that has the effect of enlarging society’s acceptance of gun use generally. It blurs, rather than clarifies, the terms and parameters of the gun debate. Hunting means different things to different people, but one thing should be clear to everyone: Firearms hunting has nothing to do with true athletic competition and the spirit of sport. And as any good hunter would tell you, when shooting to kill, gun use is never a game.
Words inevitably shape and reflect our attitudes, often subconsciously. They are loaded with meaning, and often dangerous. Especially regarding hunting and gun use, we must use words as we would a weapon: carefully, respectfully, and with their impact fully understood.
This program aired on May 15, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.