The concept of Gun Culture 2.0 suggests that hunting and traditional target shooting have become less central to gun culture over time. But gun culture itself may have also become more pluralized. Hunting, in this view, is still a vibrant part of gun culture but it is more of a niche market than the primary driver (which is self-defense, according to GC2.0).
As I have not written much about hunting, I am glad that one of my students, Natalie Wilson, did her Sociology of Guns seminar paper this year on hunting culture (the assignment can be found on the course syllabus). The text of that paper is reproduced below, with her permission.
By Natalie Wilson, Wake Forest University
The recent protest wave sparked by the tragic high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, has generated wide support for a number of gun control measures. One key demand of these movements calls for a total ban on semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15, or ArmaLite Rifle, named after the company that developed it in the 1950s (“Modern Sporting Rifle – AR-15 platform-based rifles,” 2017). After the Orlando, Florida, gay nightclub shooting in 2016, Hillary Clinton called semi-automatic rifles “weapons of war” (Drabold, 2016). In an opinion column penned for the Boston Globe on March 28, 2018, former senator George J. Mitchell suggested that “a federal ban on military-style assault weapons” would be the most effective action to “decrease the frequency and deadliness of mass shootings” (Mitchell, 2018). If that’s the case, then who would object?
As it turns out, a lot of people might. AR-15-style rifles accounted for an estimated 61 percent of all U.S. civilian rifle sales in 2016 (“Modern Sporting Rifle – AR-15 platform-based rifles,” 2017). The push for an “assault rifle” ban has generated backlash from AR-15 fans, who even reject the term “assault rifle” itself, saying that the political label stigmatizes the hunting and sport shooting tool, which they call a “Modern Sporting Rifle” (MSR). In 2016, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin said that if you used a semi-automatic rifle like the AR-15 to go hunting “you should stick to fishing,” but according a 2010 survey of semi-automatic rifle owners conducted by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the trade association for the firearms industry, through websites and blogs geared toward firearm ownership, 60 percent of respondents who owned an MSR said that they selected this gun for this purpose, and in 1963, a few years after the AR-15 was invented, Colt, its manufacturer advertised the rifle as a “superb hunting partner” (“Survey,” 2013; Drabold, 2016). Some hunters believe that a high-powered rifle is the most ethical choice of a tool because it is more likely to kill an animal “quickly and humanely” (Neilson, 2006).
While today’s Gun Culture 2.0 is built around handguns and a narrative of self-defense as the primary motivation for gun ownership, hunters are hardly a marginal population, and hunting practices still represent a key part of how guns actually function in today’s society (Wright, 1995; Yamane 2017). The 2015 National Firearms Survey found that 40 percent of gun owners named hunting as one of their reasons for owning a gun, and according to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, 32 percent of gun owners still cited this as their primary reason (Azrael, Hepburn, Hemenway, & Miller, 2017; Dimock, Doherty, & Christian, n.d.; Pew Research Center, 2013). Today, twenty-one states now recognize the right to hunt in their constitutions (while two states statutorily recognize the right to hunt), and twenty of those states’ constitutional provisions have actually been passed since 1996 (“State Constitutional Right to Hunt and Fish,” n.d.). Millions of Americans still hunt, and a contemporary sociology of guns that doesn’t fully explore their culture is giving a limited picture of the role of guns in society. To examine hunting culture’s role in current gun culture and how and why it has changed or remained consistent over time, I have generated a brief review of research studies on hunting. My research aims to find out more about hunters and hunting, including who hunts, what they hunt, what firearms they use, why they hunt and what they believe.
The number of Americans who support hunting has remained steady or even increased over the last forty years. According to a 2003 Gallup report, an overwhelming majority of Americans oppose banning all types of hunting (76 percent) (Moore, 2003). Through surveys conducted for the National Shooting Sports Foundation and other outdoors groups, wildlife management research firm Responsive Management found that 78 percent of American adults approved of hunting in 2006, up from 75 percent in 2003 and 73 percent in 1995 (Responsive Management, 2015). The National Shooting Sports Foundation also conducted an online survey of 825 U.S. residents in November 2014 to determine views on hunting, hunters, and hunting practices within the U.S. 87 percent of respondents agreed that it was acceptable to hunt for food but not for trophy hunting; however, hunting has the potential to provide food even during recreational trophy hunts, and more than 95 percent of hunters say they eat what they kill (“Survey,” 2013) (Byrd, Lee, & Widmar, 2017). Older respondents also tended to be more supportive of hunting and hunters (Byrd et al., 2017). Men are both more likely to hunt and more likely to support hunting than women: 84 percent of men approve of hunting and 72 percent of women approve of hunting. Higher levels of education and residence in a suburban area or a large city are also negatively correlated with approval of hunting (Street, 2013).
Hunters in the U.S. are predominantly white, middle-aged men who live in rural environments, and hunting is strongly connected to their relationships with their fathers or father figures. The U.S. Census Bureau’s National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, & Wildlife-Associated Recreation (FHWAR) suggested that the declining U.S. rural population correlates with the decline in hunting participation, because in 1960, 30 percent of the U.S. population lived in a rural area, but this percentage went down to 25 percent by 1999, 21 percent by 2000, and 19 percent by 2010 (Bureau, 2016; Geography, 2010). I have found that there is a general understanding in both hunting research and popular discourse that those with rural upbringings are more likely to hunt due to being surrounded by more people to socialize them into hunting who have a “utilitarian orientation” towards nature (Stedman & Heberlein 2009); however, a study of hunting participation using data from the Continuous National Telephone Survey collected by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Survey Research Center between September 1996 and January 1997 found that the only case in which a rural upbringing significantly correlated with increased propensity for hunting was when respondents were men whose fathers did not hunt; otherwise, respondents’ upbringings did not seem to relate to their participation later in life. (Stedman & Heberlein 2009). Men with rural upbringings without hunting fathers were more likely to hunt than any men with urban upbringings, but all men who had hunting fathers were more likely to hunt than those who did not regardless of upbringing. Women who did not have hunting fathers were almost never hunters, regardless of where they were brought up. This signifies that having a father who hunts correlates strongly with hunting participation and that the sociology of the family may actually provide more insight into understanding hunting culture than comparing rural and urban settings.
In general, women have typically been 10-20 times less likely to participate in hunting than men over the last century, but where there are more men who hunt, there are more women who hunt, because women are typically socialized into hunting by men (Heberlein, Serup, & Ericsson, 2008; Stedman & Heberlein 2009). Now, however, the positive correlation between hunting participation rates of men and women is starting to weaken and the participation gap between men and women hunters is narrowing; the number of women who hunt continues to grow as overall hunting participation in the U.S. continues to decline. According to a study conducted by wildlife management research firm Responsive Management under a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, between 1985 and 1990, the percentage of women who went hunting more than doubled, while the percentage of men who went hunting during this same time period declined by 16 percent (Street, 2013). The number of U.S. women who hunt increased another 25 percent between 2006 and 2011 (Bragg-Holtfreter, 2017).
Hunting motivations and behavior also differ between men and women hunters. Responsive Management found that women hunt predominately for utilitarian and familial reasons (Street, 2013). In fact, women were twice as likely as men to hunt for meat (47 percent women, 22 percent men), more than twice as likely than men to hunt to be with friends and family (27 percent women, 11 percent men), less than half as likely as men to hunt for the sport and recreation (20 percent women, 45 percent men), and a third less likely than men to hunt to be close to nature (7 percent women, 22 percent men). Additionally, a study of Texas hunters using an online survey (2,000 respondents), seven regional public forums (300 participants), and three stakeholder meetings revealed that women hunters listed being with their spouse as the most important reason for going hunting (Adams, Brown, & Higginbotham, 2004)
“Hunting culture” is made up of many co-existent social imaginaries, or sets of shared values, commitments, experiences, and expectations that create a community of U.S. hunters (McGuigan, 2017). Overall, hunters take to the woods for a variety of reasons; however, “hunting in most parts of advanced capitalist societies is [now] divorced from necessities of subsistence and is instead a leisure pursuit motivated by thrill- and trophy-seeking, kinship bonding, personal fulfillment, and the inheritance of tradition” (McGuigan, 2017). Between 1980 and 2006, the percentages of hunters hunting primarily to obtain meat significantly decreased from 43 percent of hunters to 22 percent (Kellert, 1985; Street, 2013). It’s interesting to note that even though only 22 percent of hunters say going after the meat is the primary reason they hunt, more than 95 percent of hunters say they eat what they kill (Byrd et al., 2017)). On the other hand, those who said they hunted to be with friends and family increased from 9 percent in 1980 to 27 percent in 2006, and this jump seems to correlate with the increase in women hunters, many of whom cite familial bonding as their primary motivator for hunting (Street, 2013). Hunting to be close to nature also increased from 10 percent in 1980 to 16 percent in 2006. In fact, some hunters argue that sterile supermarkets and branded packaging enforce distance between humans and nature by removing them from food systems, and that hunting allows for an authentic and unmediated diet that promotes more mindfulness and sustainability (Montgomery & Blalock, 2010; Vaske & Roemer, 2013).
I believe that a decline in hunting participation could be the result of a number of factors that negatively impact engagement with all commodity-intensive forms of serious leisure, including reduced access and opportunity, increased cost, or personal constraints, rather than increases in antihunting attitudes, preference for and interest in other leisure activities that are similarly time- and commodity-intensive, or major shifts in the sociological “hunting culture.” According to The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, a book by Juliet Schor, numerous factors including consumerism, employment, and the division of labor between men and women, there has been an ongoing decline in both time and energy for leisure, which has led Americans to engage more in nonparticipatory, passive forms of leisure (Meeropol, 1992). According to the 2001 FHWAR, 46 percent of former hunters quit for family or work and 44 percent quit due to overall lack of time (U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of the Census, Index). A study published in the Academy of Marketing Studies journal by Montgomery and Blalock used an online questionnaire posted on the website of Eastman’s Hunting Journals to garner a convenience sample of 228 respondents and found that the biggest competitors for hunters time were work (84 percent), family (71 percent), and household chores (18 percent) (Montgomery & Blalock, 2010). Less than 11 percent of respondents reported that other competing leisure activities stopped them from hunting. Hunting requires dedication to expenses for various commodities, including purchased goods like guns, permits, and training that leads to a net monetary loss for most participants (Pettis, 2016; Yoder, 1997). Although the number of people who hunt has been on a steady decline, the total number of days hunted, average hunting days per hunter, and total spending on hunting have all increased (“Survey,” 2013).
It should be noted that the difficulties one faces when choosing a method of counting the nation’s hunters parallel the challenge of counting gun owners overall. The U.S. Census Bureau’s National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, & Wildlife-Associated Recreation (FHWAR) uses hunting permit purchases as a proxy for determining the number of hunting consumers, but this does not include those who are younger than 16 or older than 65 or those who don’t have to buy permits, and some of those who purchase a permit do not end up hunting frequently, if at all (Adams et al., 2004). Overall, even as widespread and highly visible gun control movements bring the sociology of guns further into the mainstream and academic spotlight, the lack of literature and original research on hunting culture in the contemporary U.S. reveals that this discipline may not yet provide a holistic and complete review of the role guns actually play in society.
Although most hunters are white, middle-aged men, I believe centering them in research has come at the expense of gun owners who come from marginalized populations, which creates a less nuanced sociology of gun culture. Because some of the general population does not approve of hunting for non‐utilitarian, sporting reasons, I believe some of sociological researchers’ own biases may also limit the study of hunting (Street, 2013). According to a policy report produced by a thought force aimed towards increasing hunter participation and retention in Texas, characteristics of modern hunting experiences are so vastly different from those of the past that a new model for understanding the economic, social, and cultural factors influencing hunters is needed (Adams et al., 2004). Contemporary research on hunting involves survey data to explore the demographics of hunters, their motivations, their attitudes and preferences and the amount of money they spend, but little research takes in-depth looks at the social and cultural meaning of hunting to those who actually hunt, although I found several theses and dissertations that attempt to correct this gap by using ethnographic methods (Carruthers Den Hoed, 2017; Littlefield, 2006; Pettis, 2016). There was also a lack of more detailed information on what types of firearms hunters use and why hunters both do and do not choose to use semi-automatic rifles, meaning that there is still further research to be done in order to further the gun control debate. As addressed by our final class discussion, statistics and survey data are not enough to change people’s views on guns on either side of the debate. In order to have conversations that generate more progress, I believe a more robust understanding of how semi-automatic rifles, and firearms in general, actually function in the daily lives of responsible, law-abiding gun-owners, including hunters, is needed.
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