Guns And Millennials: Which Way Will It Go?

In February the Center for American Progress, which is Washington’s pre-eminent liberal think tank, jumped into the gun debate by holding a national conference attended by all the usual suspects (Bloomberg, Coalition Against Gun Violence, et. al.,) and issuing a report which described a “crisis” of youth gun violence.  The report is basically old wine in a new bottle and doesn’t really say anything that can’t be found in any number of other gun control reports, but since CAP often defines the issues that sooner or later end up spearheading the liberal legislative agenda, it’s worthwhile to take a look at the details, which I’m sure have also been read with interest at the headquarters of the NRA.

capAccording to the CAP report, of everyone killed by guns each year, one in five was 24 years old or younger, making gun death the second most common form of morbidity for this age group, surpassed only by motor vehicle accidents.  Actually, the number and rate of guns deaths has been pretty steady or declining slightly since 2000, while car accident deaths for people under age 25 has dropped by nearly 30% during the same period. On the other hand, vehicle deaths held steady and actually increased between 1990 and 2000, whereas young gun deaths declined more than 20% during that same period.  So first it was gun deaths that declined significantly for ten years and then stabilized, then car deaths dropped and likewise stabilized, with the two trends running very similar numbers since 2010.

Why was there such a significant decline in young gun deaths between 1994 and 1999?  The truth is, we don’t know.  Even though homicides usually account for less than 3% of all violent crimes, they tend to follow other crime trends and violent crime in the United States dropped significantly in every category between 1993 and 1999. Why did this happen?  There are lots of theories out there, from aggressive policing to increased jail populations, to removing lead from paint, less unwanted babies after Roe vs. Wade, and God knows what else.  Perhaps the decline in violent crime occurred for all those reasons, but the truth is that we simply don’t know.

One thing we do know is that the decline in gun violence before 2000 and its stabilization in the years since then occurred in the absence of any new gun control legislation at all.  The NICS background check system wasn’t operating in any comprehensive sense until 1998, which is when the decline in gun violence began to slow down.  For that matter, while the authors of the CAP report bemoan the fact that gun deaths are “failing to go down,” one could turn this completely around and wonder why gun deaths haven’t gone back up?  This is a particularly vexing question given the fact that gun violence remains stable at a time when more guns are being manufactured and sold than at any time in the history of American small arms.

Don’t get me wrong.  The fact that a group of Millennials came together to organize a grass-roots movement aimed at their peers, particularly the college-age population, is a wonderful antidote to the fear-mongering and glorification of the “armed citizen” that  the NRA cynically uses to promote gun sales.  And maybe the Millennials will be the first generation since my generation (I’m a pre-Boomer) to once again embrace the traditional notions of guns as necessary for hunting and sport but not much else.

On the other hand, I hope that the CAP and its legislative followers won’t just seize on this document to promote yet another round of political hand-wringing that will no doubt result in little, if anything, getting done.  I’m all for solutions to public health issues whose origins, incidence and impact we truly understand.  We know how many people are killed by guns every year, but I have yet to see a convincing study that explains why some people who have access to guns point them at themselves or others and pull the trigger, but most of the gun-owning population leaves the gun alone.  Like Walter Mosley says, “If you carry a gun, it’s bound to go off sooner or later.”

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Can Hunters Do What Beavers Do?

Previous posts explained the primary role played by hunters in exploring, opening and ultimately settling the Western wilderness, an experience motivated by financial rewards from the trade in furs. But it would be a mistake to assume that this took place only as we pushed West.  In fact, from the moment that white Europeans first set foot on the East Coast, moving inland was as much a taming of the wilderness as would later happen when we began moving across the territory that we owned by dint of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

According to the biologist and agriculturalist Toby Hemenway, within a decade after the first landing by the Mayflower in 1620, at least 100,000 beaver pelts were shipped back to Europe, and by 1640 as many as 800,000 beavers had been slaughtered over the previous ten years.   The demand for animal fur, largely beaver but also including bear and wolf, continued to grow over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to the point that more ships crossed the Atlantic carrying furs than were used to catch and carry fish.

Trappers and hunters who extended the fur trade beyond the Missouri after 1810 found that Europe’s demand for furs was now subordinate, in many cases, to home-grown demand from within the United States. Cities like New York, Philadelphia and Boston now had large populations whose tastes in clothing meant that furs were treated and re-sold within the domestic market rather than being sent overseas.  When fashion began changing in the 1840s and fur garments gave way to leather goods, the Western hunters shifted away from slaughtering beavers and quickly made the buffalo almost extinct as well.

While hunters and trappers were still exploring and opening the Western wilderness, in the East the process of moving from farming to industry had begun. Factories began springing up all over New England by the 1840’s, with textile, firearms and clothing manufacturing combining natural resources like furs and hides from the West with abundant energy from the fast-moving streams in the East.  The growth of a huge internal market based on cheap resources from the frontier combined with cheap energy from what had previously been the frontier launched a half-century of economic expansion that no other country has experienced before or since.

Beavers at work: stream, marsh and woods.

Beavers at work: stream, marsh and woods.

What lay behind this enormous economic growth was the handiwork of hunters whose ability to kill off beavers brought about a crucial change in the ecosystem that allowed all those New England factories to create the goods and satisfy both domestic and foreign demand.  The deep gullies and fast-moving streams that created energy for factories was not a natural feature of the New England landscape; it was what happened to slow-moving and gentle ponds when, as Toby Hemenway says, they were fed by “beaverless watersheds.” Beavers create environments that hold maximum amounts of water and soil on the land.  Remove the beavers and the water turns into a cascade.

Beaver activity creates a natural cycle of environmental replenishment. Ponds become marsh, then meadow then woodland, and then the beavers build another dam, and the cycle repeats again.  We’ve tried to do the same thing in many places where the hunters killed off the beavers, because this let us us build factories. Except the factories then collapsed.  A paper factory in Monroe, Massachusetts first gained a workforce when it opened in 1866 because farmers in the surrounding Monroe Plateau were happy to trade their plows for a steady wage.  The town lived off the mill for more than one hundred years, but when it was shuttered in 1985, the town basically shut down as well.

Monroe, Massachusetts

Monroe, Massachusetts

Nobody has come up with a plan for these towns; fancy catchwords like rural reindustrialization can’t  do for this environment what the beaver could do for its environment with a flat tail and some sharp teeth. I can tell you, however, that most of the remaining residents in Monroe and other small, country towns love to hunt.  Who knows?  Previous generations of hunters sparked an economic miracle, maybe it could happen again.

Based on my book, Hunters in the Wilderness.  Volume II in the series, Guns in America, to be published in December.

Want To Play A Shooting Game? Buy A Redfield Scope

When I was a kid, which was before most of the readers of this blog were born, the gun industry made two very different types of guns. They made rifles and shotguns for hunting, and they made handguns and military-style rifles for the armed forces and the police.  There was some cross-over in products of course, largely because most adult males did military service thanks to the draft, so if they wanted to own a handgun as a civilian they would naturally gravitate to a Colt .45 pistol or a Smith & Wesson revolver.  But if you walked into a gun shop in the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s you were in a place that sold arms, ammunition and accessories for outdoor sports, which meant hunting, with an occasional self-defense handgun thrown into the mix.

Even though hunting remains popular in certain parts of the country, nobody can deny that the consumer taste in guns hasn’t changed.  In 2010 for the first time, American gun companies manufactured more handguns than long guns, and more than 200,000 of the 1.8 million rifles manufactured that year were military-style AR-15s.  This blending of military and civilian styles isn’t just a function of the design of guns.  It’s taking over the nomenclature of the industry to the point that you can hardly tell the difference between what a soldier carries into the field and a hunter carries into the woods.  Take, for example, the Redfield Optics Company.

The company was founded in 1909 by John Redfield, an avid sportsman and hunter, whose product line was aimed at the “middle market” consumer who could afford to pay a bit more for his equipment but expected some quality in return.  Like many smaller companies in consumer optics and electronics, Redfield fell prey to overseas brands in the 1980s, limped along for another few years and eventually shuttered the doors in 1998.  One thing led to another and in 2008 the brand name was purchased by the most iconic American optics company – Leupold – who now sells Redfield products through their multiple channels both here and overseas.

To see where I’m going with this post, take a look at the Redfield website.  The scopes haven’t changed, they are the same mid-level, mid-priced optics that the company has been selling for more than one hundred years.  But the old scopes had names like Partner, Widefield and Accu-Range, the last being a 3x-9x scope that was originally mounted on a variation of the Remington 700 rifle  used as a sniper gun by the Marines. What does Redfield call its scopes now?  Names like Battlezone, RevolutionCounterstrike and Revenge, the last being their standard hunting scopes that can also be mounted for archery hunts. Naming a hunting scope Revenge?  What are the hunters avenging themselves about? Because the deer ate some apples off a tree?

A new study says that violence in PG-13 movies is more common than in popular, R-rated films.  Which means that children are being exposed to shootings and violent gun use at a younger and younger age. Why wouldn’t companies like Leupold take advantage of this trend towards more violence?  After all, there’s really no difference between a movie, a video game and a real AR-15, right?

 

Why Don’t Hunters and Tree-Huggers Like Each Other?

Why do hunters and conservationists dislike each other? It wasn’t always that way. In fact, the modern American conservation movement that appeared in the 1880’s was started by hunters, chief among them our 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt. In the many books and articles that he authored about hunting and wilderness, Roosevelt tried to find a balance between conserving wilderness to protect animal habitat, while also allowing economic development of the frontier to move ahead.

But the world has changed and so have the battle lines between hunters on the one hand and conservationists on the other. Or have they?

For a moment, let’s put aside the vitriol and passion surrounding the proposed legislation  in California to ban all lead ammunition, a bill that that is on its way to Jerry Brown’s desk and will shortly become law. There are arguments to be made on both sides. The environmentalists have data to prove their point of view; likewise the hunting lobby can roll out their set of facts.

The problem is that nothing in nature is that easy to understand; nothing can be reduced to a simple take-it or leave-it explanation, no matter what proponents on either side would like you to believe. And Roosevelt keenly felt the need to unite both sides, as he said in a letter written in 1902: “the lover of big game and wilderness [is] an instrument against, instead of in favor of both.”

The degree to which hunters and conservationists should be fighting the same battles is remarkably underscored by the data found in the National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation newly published by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a division of the Department of the Interior.

In 2011, more than 90 million Americans either fished, hunted, watched wildlife or did all three. Of the total, 26 million went hunting and fishing, 64 million looked at birds or animals either near their own residence or by taking a trip. Together, all three groups spent $144 billion.
Three-quarters of the people who went fishing engaged in fresh-water angling, bass being the catch of choice. For the hunters, 60% went after big game: deer, elk, bear and wild turkey. As for the wildlife watchers, three-quarters did it primarily around their home, but more than 25 million took trips away from home. Both groups primarily watched (and fed) birds.
watching When we break down fishing, hunting and wildlife watching by size and location of community, all of a sudden the three types of activities blend into one. The highest proportion of residents engaged in fishing, hunting and watching are found in rural locations. Break it down on a state-by-state basis, the north-central and deep-southern states have the highest proportion of people who do all three.

You can discard the stereotype that hunters are blue collar and birders are the educated, upper-class elite. The same communities where hunting is most popular are also the communities with the greatest number of people who enjoy wildlife. When you stop to think about it, why shouldn’t this be the case? After all, people closest to nature tend to get out into nature.

Hunters and conservationists would do everyone a big favor if they would sit down together and figure out what they have in common, rather than always arguing about what keeps them apart. There may be competing claims about what to do with natural spaces but these spaces belong to all of us.