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Richard Kyte: What hunters say about guns might surprise you

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Richard Kyte is director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wis., and co-host of "The Ethical Life" podcast.

The terms of the gun debate have been set so firmly and for so long that any attempt to venture past the slogans employed by the respective sides is typically met with derision.

I suspect that, for many, there is very little thinking about this topic anymore; what is called argument is really just posturing or strategizing. Where there are no genuine questions being asked, there is no thinking.

The participants in the debate come largely from two camps: on one side there are the gun enthusiasts for whom guns are an expression of identity and who therefore regard any attempt to regulate guns as a personal attack; on the other side are the gun despisers who have never owned or fired a gun, live largely outside the gun culture, and who see guns only as a threat.

But there are many Americans — perhaps a quiet majority — who do not fit neatly into either camp. These are people for whom guns are tools, not symbols; they use them for hunting, shooting sports, self-defense or work. They are concerned about gun violence and dislike the aggressive posturing of certain gun enthusiasts. At the same time, they are skeptical about many of the proposals put forth by gun control advocates and tend to be wary of government overreach.

Their voices are often left out of the media representation of the gun debates. Moreover, they are reluctant to enter into those debates because they tend to be misinterpreted by both sides.

I decided to reach out to some of these people to see what they had to say. I contacted a dozen people who own several guns (most own more than 10). I wanted to hear from people who are comfortable around guns and shoot them regularly. All of them are longtime hunters.

I asked them a simple, open-ended question: Are there any gun restrictions you would find acceptable?

It surprised me to find that most had been thinking about this issue for some time but had rarely been asked for their opinions. They wanted to know if I would use their names. They were willing to share their views but were worried about repercussions from extremists.

“Oh, boy. I have to be careful,” is the first thing Tony said. He is a professional hunting guide and talked about the numerous close calls he has had with clients.

“As a guide I've had loaded guns with safeties off pointed directly at me numerous times by inexperienced hunters who claimed to have prior gun-handling experience. I believe having some sort of mandatory gun safety class prior to firearm purchase makes a lot of sense.”

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Ray agreed: “Many states require gun safety classes for youth hunters and out-of-state hunting license purchases, but I think it’s even more important for people who purchase firearms and don’t hunt. Hunters quickly see and experience the lethal effects of a firearm when they are afield. Taking a life, any life, is a very serious event, even when hunting game.”

Most of the hunters I talked to think universal background checks should be implemented. Tom put it simply: “I have a problem with gun shows and private persons selling guns.” Keith added, “I have to wait every time I purchase a firearm from a dealer, and I am totally fine with that.”

Many favor eliminating high-capacity magazines. A few, like Chuck, even propose limiting the amount of ammunition a person can carry (outside of a gun range or private property): “Five rounds are adequate for self-defense and in line with the ethics of ‘fair chase’ while hunting.”

Several are in favor of raising the federal minimum age to purchase a gun from 18 to 21. “Being a teenager is just too damn chaotic these days,” Tony observed.

Some of them mentioned red flag laws, which would allow law enforcement to identify those who might be a threat to themselves or others and confiscate their weapons through a court order. Bill, who works for a large outdoors organization, is cautiously supportive: “I don't buy the argument that if you precipitated a mass shooting, you had to be mentally ill. Still, a red flag law might be of some value. If you have expressed yourself in a threatening way, the system might catch it and might take action to limit your access to firearms.”

What I found most interesting about the responses, however, were the feelings they expressed toward the most vocal participants on both sides of the debate.

They don’t like the exhibitionism of the gun extremists. Henry said, “I think the greatest threat to gun rights is overzealous enthusiasts using guns in a way that is offensive, like walking into a grocery store with an open-carry military-type assault rifle.”

They also worry that if the measures presently being considered do not stop all mass shootings and other gun violence, the gun control advocates will push for even more restrictions that violate the civil rights of law-abiding gun owners.

Greg said, “The problem is they can’t enforce the laws that are already on the books, and that’s just going to get harder if we pass more laws.”

There is often a deep irrationality to the public debate about guns that leaves reasonable voices on the sidelines. In private discussions, the tone and content of the debate can be altogether different. It’s time to encourage the quiet majority of gun owners to join the discussion.

Richard Kyte is director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wis., and co-host of “The Ethical Life” podcast.

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