Every Friday this winter, my husband woke up early, put on warm layers, ate a huge breakfast, and went target shooting before work with a friend’s grandfather, a 70-something hunter and biathlete. Right before Christmas, they invited me to join them. So, I went target shooting, too. Three times.
Just to be clear, I’m saying that my husband and I shot guns. We had fun. It could be only a matter of time until we consider hunting.
This was supposed to be a simple article about Vermont’s shooting and hunting culture. But shortly after I wrote the first draft the Newtown tragedy happened, and nothing was simple anymore.
A few facts: As a mom, I was devastated by the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary. I’m still reading and listening and gathering facts, trying to form my opinion on the best solution to such mass killings. I don’t see the appeal of semi-automatic assault rifles. The guns we borrowed to shoot last month were a .22 caliber bolt-action rifle (for me), best known as a starter gun for squirrel shooting; and a cap-lock muzzleloader rifle (for my husband), an old-school musket that takes about 5 minutes to load before each shot. Mass killings would be extremely difficult with either gun.
So I feel conflicted; pulled between what’s normal in Vermont, and what’s normal in every other place I’ve lived.
If you don’t live in Vermont, it’s difficult to imagine the role that shooting and hunting play in the culture. According to a 2001 survey by the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, 42% of Vermonters keep firearms in or around their homes. Throughout October and November, hardly a weekend passes when we don’t hear shots echoing in the woods. During these months, camouflage clothing is de rigueur. Deer carcasses stretch across car hoods, recline in the beds of pickup trucks, or hang in front yards. Successful hunts make the front pages of local papers, and children at our daughters’ preschool “hunt” at recess. Many of our friends spend at least one weekend each fall freezing in the pre-dawn woods, hoping to catch a deer with a bow, rifle, or muzzleloader.
If you DO live in Vermont, it’s difficult to imagine how little a role hunting and shooting play in many other parts of the country. None of my previous homes – Virginia (35% keep guns), New York City (18%), and California (21%) – prepared me for Vermont’s hunting culture. Manhattan is so developed that the largest remaining wildlife are rats and hedge fund managers – neither of which make good eating. In the Virginia suburbs and the San Francisco Bay Area, deer are pests, trotting down sidewalks and foraging brazenly in landscaped yards because their natural habitats have become housing developments. Controlling the deer population through hunting is almost impossible; there’s nowhere to take a shot without hitting your neighbor’s house. (Or, in the Bay Area, without hitting someone who’s protesting hunting).
When we first moved to Vermont, hunting seemed like a quaint local custom, in the same league as keeping chickens or heating your house with a woodstove. Since we ended up adopting the latter two behaviors, I should’ve figured it would be only a matter of time before we took another look at hunting.
What changed? What made a meek suburban girl take up shooting, and even consider hunting?
It helps that we have good friends who are very serious hunters. These also happen to be people with an enormous respect for nature; they aren’t mowing down Bambi left and right. It slowly dawned on me that hunting – at least the kind of hunting our friends practice – is about having respect for nature. Serious hunters want to conserve natural habitats and the wildlife that lives there; otherwise they’d have nothing left to hunt.
The Fish & Wildlife Department places strict regulations on deer hunting. Regulations aside, the fact is: it’s difficult to kill a deer. Many hunters consider themselves lucky if they bring home one deer every few years. Aside from the skill needed to hit a moving target, Vermont deer season is only about 46 days long (and that’s divided into bow & arrow, rifle, and muzzleloader seasons, so unless you’re diversified, you only get a couple weeks). And Vermont deer still have plenty of natural habitats left to roam; unlike suburban deer, they’re not usually running through your backyard.
If a hunter is lucky enough to bag a deer, that deer is not wasted. Its meat is eaten, and what’s left is stored in deep freezers or given away to friends and family. Deer hunting has a purpose; it’s sport, but the end goal is food. And I’m not a vegetarian.
For the moment, though, we’re sticking to targets. My husband and I have enjoyed the time together (without the kids), the time spent outdoors, and the friendly competition. I’d heard that women are often better shots than men, because their egos aren’t so wrapped up in it. So let me modestly say that, during our first time on the biathlon course, I outshot my husband. What with three young children – and a fourth due in June – it could be a while before I get out there again. But, as our septuagenarian shooting teacher told me, “You’re not the one who needs the practice.”
Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, three young daughters (with another on the way), one adorable puppy — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.