Saturday, January 5, 2013

Hunters' Rights

When I was a student, I was lucky enough to be invited, along with a few other students, for a weekend in the Adirondacks. One of the deans was married to a Vanderbilt, and when we arrived, they showed us around the main lodge, which had soaring wood paneled walls lined with the heads of big game shot by one Vanderbilt or another. The Vanderbilts were, apparently, enthusiastic hunters.  The estate bordered the Rockefeller estate, had its own private railroad line, its own gasoline station and a map on one wall made it look about the size of the county I came from in Maryland.

One thing I distinctly remember was the perimeter around the lodge and the smaller cabins surrounding it, which was marked clearly with blazes on trees. That's where you left your guns, and the help would come by and pick them up. No loaded gun was allowed closer than a mile and a half from the lodge. You left the guns, unloaded, and the help came and got them and brought them to a cabin. The guns were left unloaded, I presumed, for the safety of the gun bearers and, I thought darkly, to be sure the gun bearers could not use the guns on the Vanderbilts or their guests.

My wife's father was a life time member of the NRA.  His father gave him his first rifle at age 12, and he hunted in the fields and woodlands of Utah. When, years later as an Army colonel  he was appointed assistant commander of Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., he arrived at the house assigned him, in a wooded area of the campus and spotted squirrels scampering around the grounds. He quickly retrieved, not a gun, but his bow and arrow and promptly nailed a squirrel for lunch.  Within minutes, his house was surrounded by M.P.'s, one of whom ran up to his door and the colonel stepped out on to the porch, smiling, curiously.

"Colonel, stay inside until we give you the all clear."
"We had reports of an man with a bow shooting arrows."
"Oh, certainly. Carry on," my father in law said, and he went back in to the kitchen to prepare his squirrel lunch.

Walter Reed, in those days, was just off 16th Street in Northwest Washington, D.C. It was one of those enclaves within a city which had deer, squirrels, even the occasional fox. But the military was very vigilant about weapons. 

My father in law mentioned that soldiers returning from firing ranges on base had to present the empty shell casings, which were then counted. If you had taken 24 rounds, you had better come back with 24 shell casings. The Army did not want you using a live round on a drill instructor, officer or fellow soldier. That's how careful the Army was about ammunition, guns and the potential for mischief by the mixture of the two.

All this is by way of introduction to events of January 1.  Walking along the Urban Forest in Portsmouth, which is bounded by Elwyn Road, Route One and the salt bog, I heard gunfire. Long volleys, then silence, then more shots. The Urban Forest was teeming with walkers and dogs that day, and many of them came streaming out along the trails near the water, through the woods, trying to get away from the firing. Somebody said she had seen a man with a rifle firing in the direction of the high school, across the bog.  An off duty policeman, walking his dog, called the station house in Portsmouth to send out a squad car, but as he looked out across the bog, fifty yards from the entrance to the park, he saw two men on an island just offshore, a boat, and they had rifles.
"They might be hunters," he said. "They might be within their rights. It is the Live Free or Die State."
Sure enough, the Police Log in the Portsmouth Herald the next day said these were legal hunters in duck season.
Legal, but why is this legal?
From where those hunters stood, Route One was about 0.3 mile across open bog; the high school is screened by scrub trees and brush, but less than a mile, and the walking trails of the urban forest within twenty yards, and Elwyn Road less than 0.2 mile. 
Stray shots could have hit motorists along either road, walkers, dogs and there were precious few ducks to be seen that cold New Year's day.
The question is: What is so sacred, important or necessary about hunting that hunters should be allowed to hunt so close to their fellow citizens, to unsuspecting motorists or people just out for a walk with their dogs?
In Hampton, one of my neighbors grabs a gun and goes shooting in the salt marshes off Route One, in sight of the Seabrook/Hampton Falls Nuclear power plant and within yards of occupied homes, and within easy rifle shot of cars along Route 1.
"It's perfectly legal," he says.
Well, if we are a democracy, if we elect local government, why should this be legal?
Why can we not do what the Vanderbilts did, what the Army does, with respect to limiting and controlling lethal weapons when it comes to protecting the places we actually live?
We ought not conflate the control of hunters in populated areas with the events at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I have no doubt, seeing those hunters on the bog, all decked out in their hunting gear, they had no blood lust for human beings. They were enjoying the great outdoors, hunting ducks. 
But I do argue their enjoyment does not trump the enjoyment of all the walkers, motorists and joggers who were out that day.
In some ways, it reminds me of the debate over loud motorcycles: The man on his Harley likes the roar of his bike, but those around him are offended. 
The hunters enjoyed shooting off their rifles, but I can say with considerable certainty, they offended dozens of citizens that day.
Isn't democracy about the rights of the majority? We need to balance the rights of the minority, but isn't the greatest good for the greatest number still a reasonable principle of governance?
I might like the idea of a windmill in my backyard, but the noise and the sight of a sixty foot windmill might understandably upset my neighbors. Do they have no rights to low noise levels and a decent view?
Somehow, I do think, all of this may be of a piece:  the NRA has zero tolerance for any sort of limitation on the reasonable use, possession and display of guns. The NRA has lots of money and they use that to terrorize elected officials. That is perfectly legal, and that is the way the Supreme Court says we must play the game: Money is speech and Organizations enjoy the right of free speech as surely as individuals. 
But where, in all of this, is reason?


  1. Mad Dog,
    Crazy isn't it-I could hear a few shots today from the woods behind my house where there are hunters. Hearing a few shots unfortunately is not that unusual, but a couple of years ago I heard what sounded like a machine gun being fired so I called the police and spoke with an officer who didn't seem to share my concern. He essentially told me I couldn't assume that what I was hearing was illegal. It didn't sound like he was in any hurry to send someone into the woods to investigate and I never heard any more about it even though I left my name and address. It's absurd that guns can be discharged so close to residences or in the case you describe walking paths. It's also telling that some parties quite familiar with guns, like the people you visited in the Adirondacks and the military, find it advisable to keep the discharge of guns a substantial distance away from residences-they obviously see the danger in doing otherwise.

    Your weekend in the Adirondacks, which sounds like it must have been pretty amazing, reminds me that my favorite show Downton Abbey (large estate/lots of hunters) is back tonight. Are you watching it?

  2. Maud,

    Addicted to Downton Abbey. Looking forward to seeing Shirley MacLaine spar with Maggie Smith.
    I can understand police do not want to investigate men in woods firing machine guns. Only when they have SWAT teams and lots of support do they want to face armed men.
    I may be cynical, but it seems to me police prefer pulling over pretty housewives in Volvos to chasing down the tatooed guys in bandanas carrying big guns. Understandable.
    Mad Dog