When hunter-education classes are in session across America’s Deer Belt, I’m one of the thousands of volunteer instructors who get the privilege of spending a few hours in front of a classroom of wide-eyed and slightly fidgety students.
Those of you who graduated from these courses a full generation ago knew them as "hunter safety" classes. The focus of the instruction was on muzzle control, knowledge of the different types of firearm actions and how to prove they are safe. (That’s the subject of a trick question, by the way, since we know guns are simple tools that can never be either safe or lethal. It’s the operator who makes them one or the other.)
For nearly every American hunter, these courses were the gateway to becoming a certified, safe and competent hunter, and ultimately, to a first license.
The courses continue to be delivered by volunteer instructors working with the approval, support and resources of state fish and game agencies. But they’ve changed significantly over the last 30 or 40 years. They’re still taught in church basements and county libraries, but they’re now called "hunter education" and they revolve around a lot more than the four commandments of firearms safety. Now, instructors talk about ethics, personal responsibility and hunters’ obligation to the game animals that we pursue.
I, for one, am happy with the evolution of these courses. It’s one thing to know how to use a firearm responsibly. It’s an entirely different consideration to know how to treat our public wildlife resources responsibly. We still hammer the rules of gun safety into our students, but demonstrating gun safety is no longer the main requirement of a hunter. If anything, it’s the minimum requirement. The rest is a lot harder to teach, but it’s the stuff that will ensure the non-hunting public tolerates our pursuit of public resources, and that hunting (and fishing) continues to be an exploration of personal ethics.
Aldo Leopold, that towering father of wildlife conservation, put it better than I can. He said "a peculiar virtue in wildlife ethics is that the hunter ordinarily has no gallery to applaud or disapprove of his conduct. Whatever his acts, they are dictated by his own conscience, rather than that of onlookers."
In other words, you could probably take one or 10 mallards (or trout) over the bag limit. The chances that you’d be caught by a game warden are pretty slim. But what sort of hunter or angler would that make you? The same goes for trespassing. Sure, you could slip over that fence and hunt or fish the neighbor’s place, and no one would probably know. But what sort of hunter or angler would that make you?
It would make you someone who bends the rules for his or her own benefit. It would make you someone who took the easy way instead of the right way. It would make you less proud of your accomplishment than if you had followed the rules that everyone else is expected to follow.
We talk about this a lot in our hunter ed classes. Doing the right thing doesn’t make you a nerd or a boring stick in the mud. It makes you a sportsman or woman. It makes you someone who is proud of your achievement, precisely because it is hard.
Each of us has a code of personal responsibility that has been minted and revised since we were kids. For some of us, it’s a code that can be bent and amended to suit the context. For others, it’s a code so rigid and consistent that we’d rather die on principle than live on compromise. For most of us, it’s somewhere between those poles. That’s the code of the sportsman, and it’s one that non-hunters and non-anglers recognize as a distillation ofAmerican values: self-reliance, obedience, enterprise, honor, restraint and humility.
Those are the values that non-hunters and non-anglers expect American sportsmen and women to keep intact. As long as we can demonstrate that we are the custodians of those enduring virtues, the non-sporting public is likely to support hunting and fishing.
But if the significant part of the public that doesn’t hunt or fish thinks that we are a community of rule-benders, trespassers and poachers, then its tolerance for hunting and fishing in America will vanish like a buck in the fog. Which is why, no matter how safe you are with your rifle or shotgun, hunter education should be about more enduring values than muzzle control and target identification.