A recent report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) showing a sharp decline in the popularity of hunting casts light on a little-discussed trend that may already be influencing the political debate about guns in America.
A survey by FWS found that between 1996 and 2001 the number of hunters in the U.S. declined from 14 million to 13 million, a 7-percent decrease. The data in the report indicate that the decline is attributable to the fact that hunting is most popular among older people in rural areas and the rate at which older hunters are dying out is not being matched by the entry of young people into the activity. In 1991, according to FWS, 61 percent of American hunters were 35 years or older; by 2001 that proportion had increased to 67 percent.
The survey also points to the continuing shrinkage of the nation's rural population, which is far more likely to produce hunters than metropolitan areas. In 1991, 22 percent of the population lived in rural (i.e. nonmetropolitan) areas but accounted for 46 percent of the nation's hunters. By 2001, the rural population had dropped to 19 percent of the nation's total and 41 percent of the nation's hunters. Apparently due to attrition of hunters, the popularity of hunting even within rural areas has been declining, according to FWS. In 1991, 15 percent of the rural population hunted; by 2001, that number had dropped to 13 percent. The percentage of Americans living in metropolitan areas (defined as municipalities of 50,000 or more) who hunted held steady at 5 percent.
Hunters and the NRA
If hunting is on the decline, what are the implications for the larger issue of public policy about gun ownership in the U.S.? Robert J. Spitzer, a professor of political science at the State University of New York College at Cortland and author of the book, "The Politics of Gun Control," considers it a further reason for the National Rifle Association and the gun lobby to look elsewhere for its support base.
"The hunting/sporting people have always been the primary core of political support for the NRA and similar gun groups, so that means their base is clearly declining," he said. "I think that's the main reason why the NRA has accelerated its political appeals. The other leg of support for gun rights is the politically conservative, hard right wing--the ones who own guns because they think they somehow protect them from a tyrannical government."
While hunters do remain a core constituency of the NRA, the movement toward a broader membership of right-wing ideologues who may have no interest in hunting whatsoever has been constant for at least 15 years. In embarking on that course, the NRA lost many of its more politically moderate hunter members who considered advocacy of assault-weapon ownership a step too far. At the same time former President George H.W. Bush dropped his NRA membership in 1995 over an NRA newsletter's characterization of federal agents as "jackbooted thugs," hundreds of thousands of other NRA members, many of them hunters, did the same.
Spitzer maintains that the NRA now faces the prospect of a similar problem. After Sept. 11, 2001, Spitzer said, the sort of anti-government rhetoric that the NRA uses so effectively in drawing adherents into its fold has lost its luster. "It doesn't fly as well at a time when people want more security, more government, to protect them and are much more pro law and order," he said. "So there's less sympathy and a less receptive public for this sort of foaming-at-the-mouth 'the government is the enemy' sort of thing-because now the government is a friend that's fighting the external enemy of terrorism."
Hunting's Costs and Conflicts
While familiar gun-control issues like the assault-weapons ban and closing gun-show loopholes will be receiving Congressional attention, hunting issues remain largely within the domains of state and local government. As the suburbs expand into rural areas, inevitable conflicts arise between anti-hunting suburbanites and pro-hunting rural populations. Many towns and counties around the nation have passed hunting restrictions, but hunting organizations have countered by pushing for "right to hunt" protections in their state constitutions.
There are differences of opinion about the necessity of hunters for culling populations of wild animals. Deer populations have exploded in many areas of the country in recent years, prompting hunters to call for broadened seasons to hunt them. But animal advocates argue that large deer populations exist because state wildlife agencies often view themselves as providers and producers of deer for sport hunting, adopting programs to ensure large herds for hunters to kill.
But as rural traditions conflict with those of the suburbs, the arguments are about more than the threats posed to wild animals. According to the International Hunter Education Association (IHEA), hunters in the U.S. and Canada shot between 1,038 and 1,780 people annually between 1987 and 1997. Every autumn, American newspapers are filled with stories about these victims. In 1987, IHEA analyzed 822 shootings and found that 318 were victims of firearms accidentally discharging, 193 were mistaken for game, 143 were obscured by vegetation or were in their homes or vehicles, 140 were not noticed as the hunter swung and shot at game, and 28 moved into the line of fire.
In addition to animal-advocacy groups, some individuals are speaking out against the dangers of hunting. Rex Stuart, who lives near Arcadia, La., has organized an organization called the Non-Hunters' Rights Coalition. Perturbed by the activities of people discharging their firearms near his property, Stuart has initiated a petition drive to establish "safe space" between citizens and all private and public land where hunting is allowed. Stuart moved onto his family's farm 10 years ago, and six months later a group of people set up a "hunting club," as Stuart calls it, that borders his property only 130 yards from his front door. He claims that members frequently shoot over his house. He says he feels powerless because "the laws in Louisiana protect hunters--not nonhunting citizens."
"Hunters do get out of line," he said, "but people are afraid to speak out." He's pushing his petition in Louisiana, but he's also making the petition available to people in other states who are interested in strengthening state laws to protect nonhunters from hunters.
However, somewhat like gun-violence-prevention activists who seek stronger laws for handguns and assault weapons, the anti-hunting people face powerful entrenched opposition--and not just the NRA and sportsmen's groups. On Dec. 15, the Portland (Maine) Press-Herald reported that the state's Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife is actively working to "bring new hunters into the field" by unveiling "innovative measures" in 2003. The office "will boost marketing by targeting new license buyers from data gathered from an online licensing system being introduced" in 2003, the paper reported. In addition, the newspaper said, the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine will be pushing for the passage of legislation that would require town councils to consult with Inland Fisheries and Wildlife before passing firearm ordinances. It reportedly also is seeking a bill to protect shooting ranges from noise ordinances.
According to the New York City-based Fund for Animals, state agencies frequently involve themselves in youth-recruitment campaigns for hunting. The Fund conducted a survey which found that 48 states sponsor children's hunts and that "a growing number of states now offer cut-rate hunting licenses to children under a certain age, usually 16." In some states, such as Colorado, there are no minimum ages. In Colorado, a "Youth Combination Small Game Hunting, Furbearer, and Fishing License" sells for one dollar and is promoted by a Colorado Division of Wildlife brochure that announces that "There is no minimum age" in boldface.
Local and regional conflicts between hunters and those who oppose them will no doubt continue for many years to come. But unless hunters and their friends in state government can reverse the trend, they may be playing a losing game in the long term.
"There are just more things for people to do now," Spitzer says. "Even if you live in the middle of nowhere you can get on the Internet, you can play video games, it's easier to travel. There are more activities to draw kids away from what would otherwise be one of the few things that they can do, which is hunting. The hunting tradition is simply not being passed on from one generation to the next like it once was."