Why hunters and shooters are the target

Recently we had over for dinner a couple in their eighties who are well-respected counselors in modern psychological circles.

The husband had said ahead of time he was a vegetarian. So we had veggies for him, while everyone else feasted on chicken.

In the course of the evening's conversation a question came up about something that moved me to go to my office to consult "the oracle," otherwise known as the Internet.

The vegetarian husband followed me into my office, where the antlers of a whitetail buck preside on the wall over the computer and feathers from various wild birds are shaped into a work of art.

"You're a hunter, aren't you?" he said quietly.

"Yes," I replied quietly, expecting a challenge.

"I stopped eating meat because my doctor told me to," he said, "but I still have my old 30-06 and belong to the NRA."

"Never can tell when you might need it to deal with a burglar or some kook," he said with a sigh of relief, admitting that among the circles he and his wife frequent such an admission is not often welcome or respected. This is California's tony and oh-so-PC Marin County, after all.

The rest of the evening we had a delightful time swapping gun and hunting stories, like a couple of kids who snuck out of class and went to a movie.

There are some 65 million to 70 million people in the world who participate in target shooting and hunting. And the vast majority of uses of guns in developed countries are for sport.

For example, in the United State, while guns are used in defensive purposes about 2 million times a year, and for gun crime 600,000 times a year, there are at least 30 million people who participate in various shooting sports.

But you almost never hear about shooting sports unless there is an accident or a poacher is caught.

Shooting sports were part of the first modern Olympics in 1896. Today there are 18 different shooting events in the Summer Olympics, and eight biathlon events in the Winter Olympics. More nations participate in the shooting sports events than in any other Olympic competitions. The International Paralympics also feature 16 shooting sport events.

Shooting sports are among the safest of all popular sports, and getting safer.

According to the U.S. National Safety Council's Injury Facts Report, in 2000 U.S. firearms accidents in general fell to the lowest number since recordkeeping began in 1903.

Unfortunately, the National Safety Council does not differentiate between injuries in sport shooting and accidental injuries from firearms in general, and target shooting is both supervised and unsupervised.

So, we do not have firm statistics on the numbers of target shooting accidents in America, but Bob Mitchell of the USA Shooting Team is aware of only one firearms injury in competitive shooting matches since he first became involved with shooting sports competitions in 1963.

The U.S. National Skeet and Sporting Clays Associations have no record of any weapons-related fatality associated with a registered skeet or sporting clays competition.

Thanks to some 55,000 volunteer Hunter Education Instructors in North America, whose courses are mandatory in all 50 states, hunting is now safer than golf, tennis, basketball and even ping-pong.

In 2001, there were 79 fatal accidents and 721 non-fatal accidents for the more than 13 million licensed hunters in the United States. In contrast, the National Safety Council reports that recreational boating and bicycling account for 800 to 900 fatalities per year each, and swimming fatalities normally exceed 1,000 per year.

There is little or no positive coverage of shooting sports in the mainsteam media in North America, except for an occasional article in the Outdoors section of the newspaper.

In contrast, the biathlon is very popular in Europe, making it the most popular shooting sport in the world; but it is virtually unknown in the West, even though it is a World Cup event.

The absence of balanced discussion and reporting of shooting sports in mainstream media makes shooting sports a mystery to many non-shooters.

Therefore, it is an easy target for stereotyping and scapegoating because of the human tendency to project unconscious fears and issues onto anything that is unfamiliar, especially if something has connotations of violence, blood and death.

Especially in these times of war and terrorism, living in a media-driven "culture of fear" makes people more anxious about anything that symbolizes violence.

When some horrible incident occurs, like a school shooting, the media milks it for all it's worth to get ratings.

People feel frustrated and powerless, especially as support for the war in Iraq dwindles. Banning guns becomes a way to vent feelings of frustration about the perceived level of violence in the world, regardless of the stats about gun safety. It's human nature, like it or not.

The facts are that some 80 million people in the United States own firearms, gun ownership has increased 25 percent in the last few years, and violent crime has decreased by 33 percent.

But such facts are of little value unless people know them and have a feeling for shooters as positive role models who know how to handle potentially dangerous technologies.

What to do about it?

It's my understanding that in the recent defeat of dove hunting in Michigan, anti-hunters outspent the pro-hunters by 10 to 1. The antis put their money into slick, professionally produced TV spots, while the pro-dove hunters could only afford a few radio public-service announcements. And why did the antis win?

Sure, there are several TV channels with outdoor programming; but what audience does that reach, and what is the nature of that programming?

My prescription is that the hunting and shooting community should seriously invest in changing its image in the mainstream media.

I hear firearm owners grouse about how the movies and TV almost never give hunters and guns a fair shake.

You'd be surprised how many people in Hollywood would be happy to make programs about positive values of firearms. But getting money to make such programs is about as easy as hitting a passing teal with a 60 mph wind pushing at his tail feathers.

The hunting and shooting community boasts that it spends $21 billion a year and supports 500,000 jobs.

Log onto the Web site of WildAid and check out their public-service announcement about illegal hunting featuring NBA star center Yao Ming. It's creative, professionally shot with a charismatic spokesman, and about a subject that would have few opponents: illegal wildlife trafficking.

A hunting organization could no, should have made something like that.

Kudos to the Colorado Division of Wildlife for airing public-service announcements about the hunting heritage, thanks to a special fee tacked on licenses. I'd be more than happy to pay a hunting surcharge if it resulted in something visible being done.

Like groundhogs, hunters and shooters tend to hide from the public eye, popping up at their conventions and on their own TV networks in programs that are aimed at entertaining the choir but seldom explore news and issues in any depth.

In these times when the only time hunters get into the general media is when there is an accident or a poacher is caught, the day is overdue for hunters and shooters to become creative in presenting their image and sport to the general public. It is what's required if they expect to win popular support for the Second Amendment and shooting sports in general.

Hunting takes place in wild places, but hiding in the bushes leads to hunting's extinction.

James Swan who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.