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The New York Times, April 24, 2012

I Hunt, but the N.R.A. Isn't for Me

By Lily Raff McCaulou

Bend, Ore.

EARLIER this month, Mitt Romney delivered a speech at the annual National Rifle Association convention, calling for a president “who will stand up for the rights of hunters, sportsmen and those seeking to protect their homes and their families,” presumably with guns. I’d like to remind Mr. Romney that those are distinct groups. Too often — especially during an election year — hunters and N.R.A. members are lumped together as one and the same.

I’m a hunter and a sportswoman. I own guns, but not for self-defense. I support gun control laws. I would happily vote to repeal the Stand Your Ground law in my home state of Oregon. In other words, the N.R.A. does not represent me.

Among gun owners, I’m hardly alone. The N.R.A. has just over four million members. That sounds like a lot until you consider that about one in five American adults own one or more guns. That’s nearly 50 million people. That means roughly 90 percent of gun owners do not belong to the N.R.A.

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that every N.R.A. member is also a hunter — which is highly unlikely, considering that the most comprehensive national survey of firearm ownership to date found that only 35 percent of gun-owning households say they hunt. Even then, the N.R.A. would represent only about one-third of all hunters in the United States.

The N.R.A. has never had much to do with hunting. It was founded in 1871 by two veteran Union officers who were dismayed by the poor marksmanship of their Civil War troops. The organization promoted safe gun handling and target practice. By the 1970s, after rising gun violence prompted a national debate over the interpretation of the Second Amendment, the N.R.A. also made it its business to oppose gun control.

On its Web site, the N.R.A. calls itself the “largest pro-hunting organization in the world.” Yet during election season, the N.R.A. makes endorsements based largely on candidates’ voting records on gun control — with little if any concern for their views on other issues of interest to hunters. Candidates who voted to allow the ban on assault weapons to expire, for example, are labeled “pro-sportsmen” often despite their weak voting records on environmental issues.

Even if the N.R.A.’s worst nightmare were to come true nationwide — expanded background checks, mandatory waiting periods, limits to the number of guns purchased by an individual per month — hunting could continue as it has for more than a century, with rifles and shotguns.

For hunters like me, hunting isn’t ultimately about the gun. It’s about wildlife and the land that sustains it. I decided to take up hunting about six years ago, two years after I moved from New York City to rural Oregon. I had recently learned to fly-fish, which had given me a new way of looking at rivers. Where once I saw a generic stream, I suddenly noticed deep pools where fish rested and fast-moving riffles where they frantically fed. My fuzzy definition of fish food — “bugs” — sharpened into blue-winged olives and golden stoneflies. Rivers had come alive because I was learning their language.

I decided to learn to hunt because I wanted to read landscapes and understand their secrets, too. I wanted to learn more about where my food comes from. To hunt is to become fluent enough in an ecosystem not only to watch but also to participate in it.

To hunt, yes, we need guns. We also need wildlife. We need healthy habitat that is protected from development and pollution. We need land that is open and accessible to hunters.

If Americans’ hunting traditions are threatened, it isn’t because of bans on rifles and shotguns. The more likely culprit is the oil and gas drilling proposed in the San Juan Mountains of New Mexico — a beloved destination for elk and antelope hunters. Or the devastating effects of global warming on migratory game birds like snow geese and sandhill cranes. Or the fact that thousands of acres of United States farmland — and deer habitat — are lost to sprawling development every day.

Mr. Romney may have endeared himself to N.R.A. members when he vowed to “safeguard our Second Amendment” and to not create new laws that would “only serve to burden lawful gun owners.” But he has yet to explain what he would do for hunters.

This article originally appeared here.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton