Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Nothing left to shoot

The tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut appears to be igniting a national debate on gun rights, mental illness and violent crime. I have been watching and listening as people weigh in on these issues on talk radio and online. An important bit of context is so far missing from the debate: the fact that there are far more guns in America than there are legitimate targets for them. There is nothing left to shoot.

As I see it, there are only two legitimate reasons to use a firearm, to hunt for food, and for self defense. I would also add target shooting to prepare oneself for one of those two activities. Today I want to talk about hunting and hunting weapons.

Many people have talked about the tradition of gun ownership and hunting in America, and how in their grandfather's time, everyone had guns and knew how to shoot them. It was no big deal. This is true. 

But that was a very different world, for at least two reasons. There was a lot more wildlife to hunt, a lot more wilderness land to hunt it on, and a lot fewer people around to do the hunting. Bottom line, there were fewer shooters, and fewer total guns, and much more wildlife to shoot. Even so, our ancestors were so efficient at hunting they managed to drive entire species to extinction, such as the passenger pigeon.

There are a lot more people in America today, most of us packed into cities, and wildlife is all but decimated, their range converted to farmland, ranches or housing. Most people do not realize how quickly this has changed in the past century, and especially in the last fifty years.

Aeronautical engineer Paul MacCready once created a graph to demonstrate this point. He calculated the total mass of vertebrate animals on land and in the air. He included mammals, reptiles, and birds, but excluded insects, because most of us do not eat insects, and fish, because we do not compete with fish for living space. He wanted to measure human domination of nature over time.

In one category he put humans, our livestock, and our pets. All the living beings that are either us or directly under our control to service us. I call that the Domesticated category. 

In the other category he put wild animals, including lions, tigers, bears, wolves, deer, birds, bats, and any other wildlife than a human might want to eat or exterminate to take over its living space. Call that the Wild category.

Ten thousand years ago, the Domesticated category was puny. Humans and our livestock and pets (if any) were less than 1 percent, with Wild nature over 99 percent of the total.

Today these numbers are nearly reversed. Humans and our pets and livestock make up 98 percent of what lives on land today, measured in mass. Yes, ninety eight percent. Wild animals only make up two percent of the vertebrates on land or in the air today. That includes every animal you have ever seen in the wild or on television. 

As far as hunting is concerned, there is nothing wild left to shoot.

How recently was the halfway point? When was it the case that the Domesticated category and the Wild category were each 50% of the total? The answer is, about 1950. That is quite recent. My father and mother were both alive then.

Why is this point relevant? Because it means that the American culture of hunting with guns comes down through our families from a very recent time when the balance between humans and nature was nevertheless very different than it is now. It is a disconnect between our values and our reality. A disconnect that happened in only one or two generations.

How many hunters can the wildlife of America support today? And how many rifles would those hunters actually use? I do not know, but I suspect it is far less than the number of rifles privately owned in America today. I never owned a hunting rifle, but I did own a handgun for self-defense for a few years. Most gun owners own only a few guns. Some own a lot more. Which must mean that many rifles are never actually used for their ultimate purpose of hunting, or even for target shooting to prepare for hunting.

If that is true, it means that modern gun ownership has more to do with collecting, and with creating a market for the buying and selling of guns as collectibles that invoke the hunting way of life, than with actual hunting today (I am not discussing self-defense).

I think the gun lobby has been wise to keep silent for a few days after the tragedy. It will be interesting to see  how reality-based they will be when they finally speak up. Before people get bent out of shape one way or another we should remember that when it comes to hunting rifles at least, we are talking mostly about collectibles which are rarely used for their intended purpose, for the simple reason that there is nothing wild left to shoot.