Monday, July 26, 2010

A "grand bargain" on guns ?

After many years of involvement with hunting and shooting, as well as following debates over gun control and gun rights, I think when you cut through all the smoke, there are four general pre-dispositions or political positions people have regarding guns. The main two we hear a lot about in the media, whether they are ever accurately described or reported, are: "pro-gun", and "anti-gun". As far as I can tell, being pro-gun means you believe guns are morally good things, regardless of place, political or social context, or who is allowed to have them. If criminals, terrorists, or mentally unstable people have them, the answer is to bring in more guns to the situation, simply arm the "good guys" more, rather than focus on restricting access to firearms for certain people. The result of putting this belief into law would be an increasing weaponization of more and more aspects of daily life.

Then there is being "anti-gun". This position is that guns are made to kill, thereby it is best to restrict them extremely or eliminate them from society, and only allow the military and police to have them. They are morally evil things as they are an instrument of death. They are used by murderers, terrorists, and unstable people to more effectively inflict harm. Parts of the Chicago and Washington, D.C. gun ordinances are anti-gun, as they seek to so severely restrict the use of firearms, through imposing significant extra costs and inconvenience for their use, in addition to background checks and licensing requirements. This position has in common with the "pro-gun" position that its judgement about the nature of guns cuts across time and space and social and political contexts. As an otherwise intelligent person told me recently when I consider guns a tool, but a powerful one that not anyone should be allowed to have : "Guns aren't a necessity, so they are not like a jackhammer or a drill".

Another is pro-gun control that is not anti-gun. This position views guns as dangerous to society if not properly regulated, but that guns are not in and of themsleves morally evil. While it is distinguished from being anti-gun, it also doesn't in particular see benefits to society from private firearms ownership and shooting sports. It is something you can personally choose to do as long as you follow the proper rules.

The position that I hold is to support a system which regulates private firearms ownership AND supports the shooting sports. This position is never discussed in the mainstream media. It recognizes that there can be dangers to society from private gun ownership that is poorly regulated, but also strongly supports shooting sports, especially hunting, as there are benefits to society from these activities.

This position forms a unique program, which I have been referring to as a "grand bargain" politically. It would require that advocates of stricter gun control support measures that help the shooting sports, such as money for shooting ranges, firearms safety education in the public schools, and affirmation of shooting sports as positive activities. In exchange, gun owners would have to actively support stricter gun control, or more accurately, regulations to keep guns from some people that shouldn't have them.

There is potentially a large constituency for this approach, and Minnesota is the place to try. We have a high firearms ownership and hunting participation rate, with a history of progressive politics. A large swath of gun owners here have pragmatic views about guns, aware of the satisfaction they gain from their proper use, as well as the death and mayhem guns can be used for in the wrong hands or from unsafe practices and storage.

Then the question is, what should be in the "grand bargain" ? On the "control" side, I'd say closing the gun show loophole is a no-brainer, strong state authority to close crooked gun dealers who allow repeated straw purchases, and possibly a system of licensure to be a firearms owner. The license would be a training requirement, people who took their hunter safety training would be covered. Lastly, tougher safe storage regulations, especially in homes where there are children. A possible rule would be that ammunition be locked, which would be an affordable requirement. On the "support" side, a short mandatory firearms safety course in all public schools, with full firearms safety as an after-school program where there is interest, run by the DNR. Money will be needed for the the safety training, and to support access to shooting ranges. A tax should be levied on the firearms industry's profits. It should be put into a dedicated fund controlled by the DNR to pay for the classes and give grants to shooting ranges for upkeep, as well as even buy ranges that go on the market or get offers from developers. This could have stopped Moon Valley range, my former favorite shooting range, from being sold off. The fund could also help boost 4-H and high school shooting leagues.

This is a starter, and any such arrangement would be be the result of lengthy negotiation and discussion. There will be sticky issues which require a lot of research and debate. A perfect example is : when should people be allowed to sell or lend guns privately, with no background check ? One bill authored in the legislature closed the gun show loophole and required all guns be sold through some institution that requires background checks, with only immediate family exempted. What about friends or people you know or more distant relatives ? There are cases of people lending or selling guns to people they knew, confident the person was not unstable, and the gun was then used in a murder or suicide. On the other hand, I recently lent a gun to someone I have hunted with for several years who I know already owns firearms. This is a common activity amongst hunters who would feel unduly restricted if it were prohibited or forced to go through some time consuming process. Responsible gun owners and anti-gun violence activists who see the importance of shooting sports will have to craft proposals that address both these situations.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The most pro-hunting law in at least a decade, and conservatives voted no

One of the most interesting questions raised by the 2008 Minnesota Legacy Amendment was: what does it mean to be "pro-hunting"? Historically, it has meant believing going into the woods or marshes to kill animals and then eat them is morally acceptable, part of the chain of life. Access to places to hunt was assumed to be a non-issue, a given. However, increasingly, lack of access to good places to hunt is a big factor in the decline of hunting. At this present time, when evaluating a a group's politics or a law on whether it is pro-hunting must also include whether the group or law supports access to places to hunt.

By this measure, the Legacy Amendment, a fractional increase in the sales tax passed by Minnesota voters, was the most pro-hunting law passed in Minnesota in at least a decade. It has provided a huge boost to future hunting opportunities by dedicating millions of dollars to wildlife habitat every year. Another part of the Legacy Amendment, the clean water fund, is also helpful to hunting and fishing, by cleaning polluted waters. The parks and trails funding is related to hunting in that those areas provide opportunity for outdoor activity. Both consumptive and non-consumptive outdoor enthusiasts are likely to use these areas. The only part of the Legacy Amendment that did not directly help hunting was the arts section. I would argue that the alliance was politically necessary, and that the arts and hunting actually share something in common, but that is a topic for another day.

The amendment passed by 56% of the vote (voters who don't mark that section of the ballot are counted as "no" votes), and it is telling looking at where the votes came from. The most liberal areas of the state gave it the largest "yes" votes. The 5th congressional district, Minneapolis and surrounding suburbs, the most liberal, passed the amendment by well over 2 to 1, the 4th, Saint Paul and the surrounding suburbs, was close behind. The general pattern was that conservative areas of the state gave it the least support, with general vote totals right around 50% support. The sixth district (Michelle Bachmann's), the 2nd (John Kline's), and the 7th (represented by Collin Peterson, a conservative Democrat) gave the amendment the least support. The one interesting difference was that the 8th district, always solidly Democratic, was also one of lowest levels of support. One explanation may be that that area contains massive tracts of public land, and numerous beautiful lakes, many probably thought the spending might not benefit them or wasn't needed. It is hard to say. The 1st district, the southern part of state that includes Rochester, and the 3rd district, the western Twin Cities, both historically moderate politically, gave the amendment solid support, but well behind the more liberal areas. Statewide exit polls showed Democratic voters gave it overwhelming support, three to one, independents split 50-50, and Republicans voted two to one against. The Republican party officially opposed the amendment, as did the Taxpayers League, a right-wing outfit run by an ex-GOP legislator.

The liberal urban districts who voted overwhelmingly for the amendment obviously didn't only do so because of the pro-wildlife elements that helped hunting. They did so because of the general pro-environmental package, and that progressive voters are more willing to pay higher taxes than moderates and conservatives. Progressive voters are also more likely to be in favor of arts funding.

The political right in the hunting community are quick to label progressives as "anti-hunting". While a number of avid hunters with conservative-leaning politics campaigned for the amendment, (Bud Grant is a prime example) the election results reveal that as an overall group, conservative voters aren't willing to do what it takes to keep a thriving hunting culture. While elements of the progressive base don't like hunting (demographic studies indicate a smaller majority of the liberal base is supportive of hunting as an activity than conservatives), as an overall group, the progressive voters are the most pro-hunting group of voters when the considering the complete definition of being pro-hunting.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Pass on the hunting culture !

Theresa and Natalie Jensen their first day at the gun range in June,
shooting their Red Ryder BB gun. Natalie had the quote of the day
"Dad, your fire gun [.50 cal muzzleloader] made my tummy shake !"

Picture taken by Erik Jensen

I've been raising my twin daughters, Theresa and Natalie, who turn six this fall, in the hunting culture. They have eaten deer meat since they were just past their first birthday, and seen deer butchered every year since they were two. They have watched many hunting videos, mostly for deer and elk, and Natalie has been out hunting with me. I did have to use unorthodox methods to get her out in the field. Two years ago this fall, we were staying at a family friend's place near Hutchinson around halloween, a great time for bow hunting for deer. The girls then and now love everything to do with fairies, and Natalie liked wearing her pink costume with wings. She wanted to go out on the evening hunt, but refused to take off her fairy costume. I realized that an adult male's camoflage shirt, (I had a couple extra) is twice the size of a four year-old, with room for fairy wings to boot. The pink was concealed, problem solved. Natalie stuck it out for 45 minutes in the blind, working the bleat call and watching and listening. She saw my elevated awareness, and my eyes "playing tricks" when I honed in on something I hoped was a deer but soon realized it wasn't. She heard the pheasants, other birds, and distant shotgun fire from duck hunters on a nearby lake. She said "Dad, when are we going to do that ?"

Recently, I took them to the gun range for the first time. As you can see I had to stick with the pink theme. I am having trouble with one of Natalie's future wishes for a deer rifle: a purple stock. I do hope she grows out of it, only time will tell.

Last year, the same weekend and same farm, the girls didn't want to go out due to colder fall weather. But they did come out midday on the day we left, helping me take down my deer blind and we looked at buck scrapes. This fall, Theresa, Natalie, and my wife Paula are starting a new family tradition as the girls enter kindergarten: MEA weekend is "family hunting weekend". It's in the latter period of October, when bow hunting for deer is good, as is various kinds of bird hunting.

In 2005, I started taking a friend's son hunting when he was thirteen. After coming with to support his son a couple years later, the father started hunting.

Recent research led by Mark Damian Duda for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, suggests that an adult, usually a parent, investing their time in helping a young person learn hunting skills is one of the most important factors in whether a person becomes a future hunter. The study suggests that a large swath of us hunters who don't think it is "worth it" to invest their time in teaching youth in their lives to hunt. While there are many factors in the decline of hunting that need to be taken on through political alliances and social support structures, the lack of mentoring is something that we can have an impact on easily, right in our own immediate or extended family or circle of friends.