I’m going hunting tomorrow. Every year, my father, brother, a few family friends, and I haul an RV to eastern Washington and spend two days looking for quail. We put in a good ten to fifteen trail-less miles each day. Each morning starts at frosty, legal hunting light (6:30 a.m.), our thumbs barely warm enough to move the safeties. We stomp through sagebrush and push through brush, the dogs ranging in front and smelling for birds, sometimes successfully. We circle back to the truck at lunchtime, where we clean the birds and leave the tiny breasts in a cooler so the meat won’t spoil. It’s barely enough for one meal. We spend the second half of the day in sweaty t-shirts, and dust and sweat and bits of plants cover us in a smell of earth and gunpowder and quail. We don’t stop until the regulations say we have to (6:30 p.m.). The weekend exhausts everyone, the dogs most of all, who also love it most of all. When I tell people about this trip, about my family’s tradition for the past ten years, I share it with a blend of defiance, pride, and defensiveness.
The national conversation about gun control/rights has been reduced to a binary. For or against. Republican or Democrat. Bad arguments shout on both sides, and each year, wisdom seems to whisper a little quieter. Yes or no. Pick a side. When brought up, compromise, at best, means both sides losing. But compromise that leaves both parties bitter and plotting to undo the deal as soon as the next election rolls around is only a compromise in the same way the Korean War ended peacefully.
I’m not a good shot by any measure. I get a few birds each year, but although I go out a few times (this weekend, plus a few long day trips here and there), I miss at least eighty percent of my shots. Realistically, it’s more like ninety percent. I don’t know if I would hunt without my father. It would mean hunting without a dog, for one, but more than shooting guns, participating in nature, sustainably killing my own food, or any of the other reasons people shoot down quail, I do it because I like spending time with my dad. Neither of us is particularly comfortable sitting down and talking about whatever it is people are supposed to talk about. We like doing things, and hunting is twelve hours of hard, endorphin-pumping, beautiful-scenery doing that we get to share.
Hunting laws vary from state to state, but in Washington, I need a new upland game license each year. I bought this year’s for forty bucks at Fred Meyer. Some years I stride into the store wearing my hunter orange Winchester ballcap. Other years I creep, and I talk to the cashier as quietly as I can. Buying a hunting license in Seattle feels a bit like buying marijuana in the Midwest.
I don’t need a license to own a gun. Responsible use of my gun, though, is regulated and recorded, complete with reports for how many quail, pheasant, partridge, grouse, chukar, dove, and other species I kill (for most of these, I check the humiliating box, “I bagged no game”). Nontoxic ammunition is required, too; Washington slaps a misdemeanor onto anyone who hunts with lead shot instead of steel. The same punishment applies if I hunt without my license on my person. On top of that, violating hunting regulations can lead to fines, confiscated firearms and vehicles, and a revoked hunting license for years to come. Major poaching violations count as felonies. I don’t know many other hunters, but those I do know complain about the steel shot requirement (it’s less powerful than lead, which means birds often get hit but don’t go down), but those hunters don’t complain all that much. Steel is good for the lands we hunt in, and it’s good for future game populations. Regulations keep hunting sustainable, and besides, the paperwork and punishments for hunting are lighter than those for operating the truck we drove in on.
Gun licensing makes sense to me. So does localized regulation. Rural areas have different relationships to guns than urban areas do. State-level policies provide more flexibility than federal laws, but Seattle and Pateros are both in Washington, and the former has a population of 700,000 and no hunting land, while the latter has a population of 688 and hunting lands on just about every side. Regulations at the municipal level can even better match their community.
And what about market policies? Not a ban, but an ammunition tax in metropolitan areas like those placed on cigarettes or liquor or car tabs. Or policies that differentiate between handguns and long guns. Laws that recognize the differences among semi-automatic, pump or bolt action, and single-shot firearms, or, for the truly authentic, muzzleloaders.
And, of course, education. Familiarity instead of fear, and respect instead of righteous anger. I took an intensive, weekend-long hunter safety course in sixth grade, where I learned the rules of firearm safety. Rule 1, always treat a gun as if it were loaded; Rule 2, never point a gun at anything you don’t want to shoot; and so on, many of them redundant to drive home a point: gun are dangerous. I learned to keep a gun unloaded and locked up, stored far away from ammunition. I learned how to shoot safely, and how to put a gun in a vehicle safely, and how to cross a fence with a gun safely, and how to stand with a gun safely, and I learned why these things matter.
Small agreements won’t solve mass shootings. They won’t secure the Second Amendment. But gun policy that falls short of an ideology’s Platonic ideal is not useless. All-or-nothing advocacy, on the other hand, is.
I’ll wake up at 5:30 a.m. tomorrow to eggs, bacon, and bad coffee. I’ll layer up in worn-out clothes ripped and bloodstained by past hunting trips, pull on wool socks and battered boots, and shiver my way from the RV to the truck. I’ll hunt the hills and valleys of eastern Washington, scrambling through tangled groves, hiking past relics of old farms, and pushing through overgrown fields until my feet ache and my legs are sore and scratched. But most of the exhaustion of hunting comes from the responsibility. I’m carrying a shotgun all day, and I’m looking, constantly—where’s the dog? Where’s Dad? If we flushed a bird right now, could I shoot? A firearm is not a trophy, or masculinity, or an answer. A certain relief comes at the end of each day when we unload our shells, slip gun locks in the magazines, and zip up our cases. Relief, satisfaction, and a feeling of ruggedness and family and nature.
NPR called Josh “a modern-day Jack Kerouac” after he wrote about his 7,000-mile, no-money hitchhiking journey through the United States. Since hitchhiking, he’s found homes in the Pacific Northwest, the Episcopal Church, and the post calvin. He builds websites as the director of Branded Look LLC. Josh’s writing has appeared in places such as The Emerson Review, Front Porch Review, and Perspectives.