Jim Low grew up in Jefferson City, Missouri, a town that still boasts fewer than 50,000 residents. There, he spent his boyhood trampling through a deep, unkempt forest with his brother, training his BB gun on anything that moved.
“There was something that spoke to us, drew us down into those creek bottoms and had us chasing squirrels and rabbits,” he told me. “As adults, [hunting is] something that feels very right, and we think it’s rooted deep within us.”
Now that he’s retired from 24 years at Missouri’s Department of Conservation, and free to express his opinion, Low is adding his name to a very short list of American hunters: those advocating publicly for gun reform. Amid a spasmodic debate over gun violence in America, hunters have often been conspicuously absent. That’s because they face a real price—in terms of lost community, and possibly even lost jobs—for speaking out.
But they’re also uniquely potent messengers.
“We are Republican, Democratic and independent,” began an open letter Low signed with 11 other hunters in early May. “We are Americans; we are gun owners; we are hunters; and we support responsible firearm regulation.”
The letter offered a list of reforms, from higher gun-purchasing age rules and mandatory background checks to the prohibition of “new sales of semiautomatic shotguns or rifles (except .22-caliber rim fire) that can hold more than 10 rounds.” Hunters don’t need AR-15s or assault-style weapons to hunt, it argued, and the hunting community shouldn’t be used as a “shield” by those keen to shut down the debate.
But hunters represent a mere fraction of gun owners. Less than five percent of Americans hunted in 2016, by the federal government's official tally—compared to roughly 30 percent who owned guns. Gun owners were almost twice as likely to say they owned guns for protection rather than hunting, and while the NRA might be the best-known organization that represents hunters—roughly half of its members were estimated to hunt—only 19 percent of gun owners belonged to the NRA, according to a Pew Research Center 2017 survey.
The letter drew both swift blowback and support, but it's the backlash that seems to have reverberated. One signatory declined to be interviewed, citing “the impact my comments might have on my current job.” The employees at a hunting news outlet expressed hesitation to talk publicly, and another organization close to the controversy would only provide someone to speak off the record.
Online commenters dubbed the letter’s authors “fudds”—an epithet for gun owners who favor reforms. And the NRA ran an op-ed in the right-wing website the Daily Caller calling the letter “offensive,” painting it as the work of Obama-era official Daniel Ashe, a former US Fish and Wildlife Service director who also signed the letter (Ashe did not respond to a request for an interview).
“America’s hunters know that none of his recommendations would make us any safer,” wrote Erica Rhoad, the director of hunting policy for the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, accusing Ashe of using hunting “to divide law-abiding gun owners.”
But gun owners are divided—especially on gun control. The Pew survey found that those who didn’t belong to the NRA and those who identified as Democrats were far more likely to favor a number of gun-law reforms, and far more likely to agree with Low. “They certainly don't speak for me,” he said of the NRA, “and I don’t like the assumption that because I’m a hunter I’m against any kind of gun control and against even talking about gun control.”
“I have heard for decades that hunters all have to stand together or we'll hang separately,” he added, “and I don't buy that.”
Low said the NRA has tapped into hunters’—and gun owners’—fears that any kind of gun-control measure augurs a slippery descent toward the end of the Second Amendment, and the end of hunting with guns, period. “The antis (anti-hunting people) don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of ending hunting,” he said. “That’s just a silly argument.”
But the power of the NRA is also felt in more subtle ways. Hunters aren’t just afraid to speak out in the media, he told me—they’re worried about talking to other hunters. Those who agree with the extremely powerful gun lobby group “have been taught by the NRA tactics over the years to be empowered and to throw their weight around,” he said. “That’s a big part of the reason I signed that letter.”
He pointed to Jim Zumbo, a popular gun and hunting writer and TV personality, famous both for the jobs he’s held—and for how he lost them. In 2007, Zumbo wrote a blogpost condemning the use of a new kind of semiautomatic rifle for hunting, calling them “terrorist rifles.” It cost him. He lost his job at Outdoor Life magazine and, temporarily, his show Jim Zumbo Outdoors on The Outdoor Channel (Zumbo did not respond to interview requests).
Multiple sources for this story brought up Zumbo as the classic—if extreme—example of what happens when hunters dare suggest any kind of gun control. He’s not alone. Dick Metcalf, a columnist for Guns & Ammo magazine, lost his job after a 2013 column that argued “all constitutional rights are regulated.”
“I’ve been vanished, disappeared,” Metcalf told The New York Times in 2014, and indeed, I could not reach Metcalf for comment in connection with this story.
If hunters represent just a share of gun owners, let alone of the general public, their numbers are still in decline. Roughly two million fewer people hunted in 2016 than in 2011, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service Survey. The decline had a domino effect for conservation: State wildlife agencies rely on license fees and excise taxes on guns, ammunition and hunting and fishing gear, and from 2011 to 2016, hunting expenditures in the US fell 29 percent from $36.3 billion to $25.6 billion.
Yet Americans’ views of hunting remained extremely positive: A 2017 survey found 87 percent of Americans believed hunting for food was acceptable (trophy hunting approval was far lower, at 37 percent). Even the synonym of “sportsman” (or woman or person) carries deeply positive connotations, a sense of dignity and respect, and there, hunters like Low see an opportunity to bridge America’s growing divide both between those who own guns and those who don’t—and between the increasingly calcified groups for and against gun reform.
“We can be a bridge, but we have to speak out,” he said.
Lily Raff McCaulou, a journalist and hunter in Bend, Oregon, has been arguing that point for eight years in opinion pieces and her book Call of the Mild: Learning to Hunt My Own Dinner. Hunters, she said, represent a “middle ground” of gun owners who shoot within a complex regulatory regime.
Yet “there still hasn’t been much leadership from hunters,” she bemoaned.
They do have other pressing concerns: Hunters are worried about the loss of available hunting land, both public and private. Some might also believe that, as a dwindling group, they’re “beleaguered and victimized to begin with,” she explained. There’s also the fatigue factor for hunters who might feel they have to spend so much time defending hunting. Plus: “You’ll offend someone no matter what you say.”
But McCaulou also argued hunters can’t afford to stay quiet. Gun ownership is declining in America just as the number of guns is spiking (that 30 percent of Americans owned an estimated 393 million guns), and as non-gun owners hear about bump stocks and new kinds of rifles, even 3D-printed guns, and as mass shootings and gun violence continue, McCaulou saw a breaking point around the corner. “Eventually you’re going to have a majority of voters who say: ‘Enough, I see no value in [guns],’” she said. “I think there is going to be some hard blowback here.”
McCaulou herself belongs to Gun Owners for Responsible Ownership, a group advocating for reforms such as universal background checks and safe storage, and she knows hunters who’ve joined Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, more traditional gun-control advocacy groups. The biggest risk of staying silent, she added, “is nothing changes.” More than 36,000 people were killed by guns in America in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about two-thirds of which were suicides.
But for people like Brian Lynn, to ask why hunters don’t take a louder stance on gun reform is to misunderstand their diversity. “What they have in common is they own guns,” he said. “Beyond that, it’s hard to say.”
Lynn grew up hunting birds and deer in central Washington state, and recently lost his hunting dog—and companion through hundreds of hours in training and hunting in every imaginable weather—of 14 years. “[Hunters] cross all political and socioeconomic boundaries, that’s why it’s tough to nail any of this down,” he told me. “I have friends who are flaming liberal Bernie Bros and they’re bigger gun nuts than I am.” (Senator Bernie Sanders has a mixed record on guns.)
Researchers trying to answer the question of what gun owners have in common have identified a few broad trends: According to Pew, gun owners are more likely to be white men, more likely to identify as Republican, and among whites, less likely to have a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Lynn works for the Sportsmen’s Alliance, based in Columbus, Ohio, which he said has 6,000 members and has lobbied on behalf of hunters for 40 years in all 50 states. Their biggest concern, he said, was animal-rights groups seeking to curtail hunting and the ongoing fight to allow the hunting of Grizzly bears. He put forward an argument that many hunters make: Firearm ownership has nothing to do with hunting.
“The Second Amendment is about resisting tyranny. Firearm ownership is the right to protect. There’s nothing about hunting,” he told me. So as a hunting organization, when it comes to the gun-reform debate, “we really don’t get into it.”
Notably, the NRA takes the opposite approach. It has long lobbied both for hunting and for expansive gun ownership, entwining the two, and it has a newish initiative to “save hunting” from “animal welfare extremist groups” in “hunting’s darkest hour.” Yet its commitment to actual hunters’ rights has come under some scrutiny.
In a recent article for Outside magazine, Wes Siler, himself a hunter, argued from the headline on down that “It's Time for Hunters to Leave the NRA.” The gun-rights goliath, he wrote, “is funding the war on our public lands, while making our beloved sport look like a bastion of far-right crackpots.” It’s supported politicians who want to reduce access to public land, sell or develop it to the benefit of corporations and not hunters, he argued.
The NRA’s Dana Loesch promptly slammed the article on her NRA TV show, claiming the “anti-gun left” was “trying to turn hunters against the NRA.” Siler responded with a fact-checking article about NRA’s corporate contributors. “You can’t argue with facts,” he wrote, but his column underlined the gun lobby’s continued ability to shape debate. It might be easier for hunters seeking reforms to overcome that obstacle if they had an argument as quippy and simple as “Second Amendment rights.”
“The nuanced attitudes of many hunters toward gun control don’t get easily into a sound bite,” Low told me. They might not even know exactly what should come next. “Do I think no one should be able to own an AR-style rifle? I wouldn’t go that far,” he said. “But I want to hear the debate.”
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Rosemary Westwood on Twitter.