One Saturday last November, I shot my first deer. It was a young buck, a little more than 100 pounds. It yielded 44 pounds of meat. The following Thursday, I brought a choice cut of venison to my family's Thanksgiving table.
I wasn't raised with guns. Before 2007 I had never fired one. Yet going back to childhood, I'd been curious about hunting—the hunting specifically, rather than the guns. However, I do enjoy shooting my guns, especially my over-under 12-gauge. The sound of a shotgun pleases me, and I'd shoot it more if shells were cheaper. At the skeet range, when I double-squeeze the trigger, nailing a double, and see the near-simultaneous explosions of orange clays, it carries a special kind of satisfaction. Not quite le petite mort, but not bad.
As a midlife hunting convert, I'm a sub-species of locavore. Although there are several reasons why I took up this activity, after reading Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan I became increasingly troubled by industrial meat production. I decided to try resolving my meat issues by picking up a gun.
I went to my local chain sporting goods store and selected a bargain-priced bolt-action Remington .30-06. I filled out a couple of forms and the man at the counter placed a phone call to complete my background check. A few minutes later, the salesman walked the gun up to the front, waited for me to complete the purchase and handed it to me as I left.
You can't just start hunting, though. Before you can get a hunting license, you're required to take a 10-hour hunter education course, which includes gun safety training. If I had been uninterested in hunting with my gun, no training would have been required.
Since I began hunting for deer in the fall of 2007, my arsenal has grown to include a semiautomatic .22 (an essential farmer's varmint rifle that I use for target practice) as well as the 12-gauge shotgun.
One of the things I like about hunting—and fishing—is that, as with gardens and baseball, the seasons take on a rich, cyclical meaning: the opening of the bow season in September, the hunter's moon in October and the "rut" of November, when the does are in heat and the bucks are frantic. The deer season ends with the close of December, but the waterfowl season continues for a few more weeks. Some hunters start thinking about fishing then—down at the coast in January, crappies in February, striped bass on the Roanoke River in March. There's turkey in April and May, as well as trout fishing in the mountains and the onset of summer bass fishing.
I've dabbled in all of it, but I keep returning to deer in the fall. There's no other time that I enjoy being outdoors more. At first, I would be disappointed by my failures to get a deer. As the years passed, the ritual of preparation and the solitude of the vigil became paramount. I experimented with tactics and locations, and I developed a good humor about my reliable failures to get a deer. At the end of unsuccessful shifts in the stand, with my rifle unfired as usual, I came to think two things simultaneously: "Darn" and "Whew."
I've never felt much conflict over my place in America's gun culture. I like knowing how to handle a gun, but my knowledge is limited to long guns—traditional, practical tools of the countryside. I have no interest in handguns because they're designed to shoot humans. Handguns are responsible for three-fourths of gun murders in this country. Statistically, I am more likely to use the "devil's right hand" on myself or a loved one than the home invader so many paranoid gun owners seem to dream of killing. (Three-fifths of gun deaths are suicides.)
All too predictably, the National Rifle Association tried to groom me: I started getting their recruitment and fundraising letters, and I received ridiculous robo-calls telling me about purported plots of the United Nations to take our guns away. But credit the savvy of the NRA's direct marketers: The mailings and phone calls ended quickly. They must have figured out that I'm not one of their suckers.
The NRA wasn't always this way. As various news outlets have reported recently, for a century the NRA was a respectable, noncontroversial organization focused on promoting safe shooting and the conservation of public game lands. That NRA supported the National Firearms Act of 1934, passed in response to gangster violence, as well as the Gun Control Act of 1968. However, in 1977, as cheap Saturday night specials flooded America's cities, the right-wing nuts took over the NRA. And America's ability to craft sensible gun laws ground to a halt.
I don't want anything to do with the NRA, but it won't leave me alone. Thanks to the NRA's appalling and evil power in Washington, I am besmirched and complicit. It's the first or second question people ask me: "You're not a member of the NRA, are you?" It's like the old days when traveling North Carolinians constantly had to answer for Jesse Helms.
And it gets worse for the left-wing North Carolina gun owner. A North Carolina-based holding company called The Freedom Group has bought up legacy gun manufacturers, including Bushmaster and Remington. The Freedom Group is headquartered in Madison, N.C., north of Greensboro, and it is owned by a Wall Street venture firm, Cerberus Capital Management. Furthermore, George K. Kollitides, CEO of The Freedom Group, is on the NRA's nine-member nominating committee. (After Sandy Hook, however, Cerberus announced its intention to divest its holdings in The Freedom Group. And I may need to divest myself of my Remingtons.)
I like to think that as a nontraditional gun owner, I can help build bridges and encourage sensible gun discussion. But the NRA doesn't want this to happen, and I am often discouraged by the silence of moderate gun owners. Our silence leaves a vacuum to be filled by aggrieved non-gun owners and the shrill, irrational, often frightening gun zealots. But this isn't an accurate picture of reality: No less an authority than Republican pollster Frank Luntz has determined that a majority of gun owners, including some NRA members, would prefer to see tightened rules. But speaking up means exposing oneself to angry denunciations from the gun fundamentalists.
There was a good chuckle—and chagrin on the part of gun fanciers—on Facebook last weekend over a spate of accidental shootings that occurred at gun shows on "Gun Appreciation Day." In Raleigh, someone injured three people by bringing a loaded shotgun to the Dixie Gun & Knife show, in violation of all common sense and training he should have received. Such instruction may seem intuitive, but I wasn't required to show evidence of training before purchasing my guns. Only the state hunter education course, and training at my skeet club, taught me the basics ("Your friend MAT: Muzzle down, Action open, finger off the Trigger").
We gun owners are disgusted by the idiocy of the man in Raleigh. But it seems like too few of us are willing to make any concessions to sanity, such as requiring all gun purchasers to prove that they are Friends with MAT, a process that should take at least a 10-hour commitment, if not more.
Instead, a typical response is, "Thanks, pal, for giving those anti-gun liberals something to beat us over the head with." (Close those ranks any more and you'll have a circular firing squad.) Another pro-gun commenter tartly wrote that this man had ignored Gun Safety 101. But that introductory "course" is an elective.
I have a lot of liberal friends, and some of them have guns, too. I also have conservative friends. Most of them don't own guns. And none of my friends want to take the guns away. It's true that a few would rather not talk about these tools of mine. And I don't insist—unlike so many gun-crazed people, my manners are good.
Normal, sane gun owners need to speak up. We need to disassociate ourselves from the nasty, delusional fools along with the sinister, secretive, evil NRA that purports to speak for all of us.
I write these words as Barack Obama is inaugurated for his second term. My enthusiasm for Obama has always been muted. I'm someone who wishes he had been tougher on the banks. I want more socialism in Obamacare. I suspect his drone strikes have killed more children than Adam Lanza did in Newtown. But the gun issue is making me a fan. It takes courage to face down our gun culture, to see your name on hateful placards brandished by gun extremists around the country.
I'm a gun owner, and I support Obama. I may not support every proposal. I may wish he and Congress would go further. But I applaud his effort to change this country's gun culture. Obama wants to make this country safe and sane. He is not going to take our deer rifles. He's not going to take our 12-gauges. And under many conditions, Obama's not even going to take your aspirational imitation military-issue rifles. And, perhaps unfortunately, Obama's not going to take most of your pistols.
So, gun owners, law-abiding patriotic Americans that we are, we need to get our heads out of the sand and meet non-gun owners on common ground. Meet our besieged law enforcement officers who want tighter regulation. Meet the grieving parents.
If we don't, we may not be invited to the discussion when policymakers' hands are forced by the next massacre of unarmed children.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Double action."