In my family, we talk about hunting like it's religion. My mom bemoans the fact that none of us have the kind of faith in God that "seems to hold other families together," but at least, she sighs, there's Hunting. Opening day's the occasion we all come home for, more than Thanksgiving or Easter, more than Christmas.
I used to have doubts about the depth of my devotion, though. Let's say I was uncomfortable with the image that "hunter" conjured up in my 13-year-old head. I remember wondering if, as a certified hunter, I would slowly start to hate public-land agencies, the United Nations and the Endangered Species Act.
I didn't even like guns, yet after my NRA-imbued Hunter's Safety Course, I was convinced that a hunter's one essential political duty is to make sure all future Americans have easy access to handguns and Uzis. How could I be a hunter and maintain good-member status in my school's Peace Club?
These days, I wear blaze orange with less anxiety. It didn't take me long to figure out that a healthy fear of guns is a good thing, and that gun politics and the ethics of hunting are not inextricably linked. I can explain why I hunt without even mentioning guns.
I hunt so I can wake up ridiculously early a few mornings a year and drink too much coffee with my dad and my siblings; I hunt because I like to watch the entire dawn from a ridge-top stand; I hunt because I think there's something important about harvesting my own food. I'll admit that my dad's .270 rifle has grown on me. But the essence of hunting and the lessons I've learned while hunting have never been about guns and pro-gun politics.
So why do so many folks believe people like the National Rifle Association's James Jay Baker, who told an Outdoor Writer's Association convention that recent gun control legislation is "just the beginning, not of a battle but of a war, to eliminate the entire culture of hunting, shooting, and wildlife conservation?" The more hunters I meet, the more convinced I am that the NRA fabricates convenient stereotypes about hunters to serve its pro-gun campaign. It's not really interested in conservation, wildlife and hunting safety.
Most of western Colorado's state legislators are guilty of perpetuating the same Hunter Myth. In the name of hunting and other rural ethics, they voted down a popular, bipartisan gun-control bill introduced into the state Legislature last spring. Now, SAFE Colorado, a state citizens' group, has picked up the torch and raised enough signatures to put the measure on the ballot this November.
The hunter stereotype is still potent partly because groups like the Outdoor Writer's Association pander to the advertisers of hunting and sports magazines, notably the gun industry. But the biggest reason that The Hunter Myth lives on is that politically moderate hunters like me have no organized voice: Most hunting and sporting organizations either echo the views of the NRA, or remain quiet as the debate rages around them.
The last time I visited my parents in metro Denver, I saw the beginnings of a solution lying on the kitchen table: a picket sign with the words "Hunters for Gun Control" printed in bold across its face. My dad and a few of his hunting friends carried the poster in a gun-control demonstration after the Columbine shootings in Littleton.
At this point, Hunters for Gun Control isn't much more than a slogan printed out on a dot-matrix printer. But what Hunters for Gun Control lacks in membership, it makes up for in concept. And, if it grows, it could be the answer for those of us searching for a different kind of hunting image.
I'll be meeting up with my family again this fall for our annual ritual - the second season deer and elk hunt. Last year, there were more trucks, trailers, horses and tents in our muddy hunting camp than I've seen in 10 years. The NRA says that hunting culture is dying - withering away in the face of suburban moms for gun control and radical environmentalists. But I suspect there'll be just as many hunters out there this year as last.
The NRA's ideal hunter, however, may indeed be dying, even as another kind of hunter - one that includes suburban moms and hardcore environmentalists - steps into the woods to take his place.
If that's the case, then I have no doubt my family's religion will remain strong. Its strength will come from a diverse and broad-minded congregation that won't confuse the right to bear arms with the senseless slaughter of innocents brought on by irresponsible gun policies.
Ali Macalady is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org). She lives in western Colorado.