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How Liberals Became ‘Real Americans’

Illustration by Jim Stoten

The current debate over gun control is one of several signs that liberalism is back, sort of. President Barack Obama gave a second inaugural speech forthrightly celebrating liberal principles (equality, environmental stewardship, collective action) and didn’t get impeached. More Americans now support gay marriage than oppose it. Universal health care survived a Supreme Court challenge and a presidential election. Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge has lost its juju.

The catch is that it’s still not entirely acceptable to be a liberal. It remains common, when making a liberal argument, to shroud it in non-liberal language. For example, in 2004, John Kerry described his opposition to the Bush tax cuts as a sign of his fiscal conservatism. “Oh, he’s liberal, he’s liberal,” Obama said four years later, mimicking his critics. “There’s nothing liberal about wanting to make sure that everybody has health care.” The lingering taboo is anthropological rather than ideological. Liberals are judged inauthentic because (at least according to stereotype) they live in cities, avoid church, and don’t own guns; they consequently feel the need to describe themselves using other terms.

This perceived illegitimacy has been a particular problem in the gun control debate, with its relentless use of first-person accounts of firearm use. And if one specific activity has ensured that the debate over guns occurs on the turf of those who use them, it is hunting. An unwritten rule says, if you’re going to argue for gun control, you must slap a halo on hunters. President Obama, asked recently by this magazine if he had ever fired a gun, affirmed that he had, adding, “I have a profound respect for the traditions of hunting that trace back in this country for generations.” Hunters are understood to be part of an authentic American majority in a way liberals who don’t shoot guns are not. But this ingrained assumption is no longer true. Busily genuflecting before hunters, liberals have somehow failed to realize that they are a new silent majority.

We think of rural-heartland dwellers as real Americans, but they currently represent less than 20 percent of the population; nearly all of us live in and around cities. We think of churchgoers as real Americans, but only 40 percent of Americans attend any kind of religious service at least once a week; most of us sleep in. We think of people who own guns as real Americans, but they represent only 21 percent of the population; the great majority of us don’t own guns. All these percentages reflect declines over the past few decades. The percent owning guns, for instance, is down by about one-third since 1985.

If liberals (defined in admittedly cartoonish fashion as non-churchgoing, non-gun-owning urbanites) represent an unacknowledged majority of Americans, hunters represent an unacknowledged minority—indeed, a minority of the minority of Americans who own guns. “Hunting” ranks behind “protection against crime” and “target shooting” as the stated reason for owning a gun. According to the most recent survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, less than 5 percent of the U.S. population reported doing any hunting in 2011. Even as liberals quake at the thought of disrespecting the animal-shooting masses, actual hunters fret that their numbers have dwindled during the past two decades by more than 11 percent.

Maybe liberals’ rank terror of the American hunter isn’t about numbers so much as it is about those “traditions of hunting” Obama mentioned. Generations of fathers have bonded with sons (and, occasionally, daughters) through the manly ritual of the hunt. And the Second Amendment, however cloudy its intent, conveniently allows gun owners towrap themselves in the traditions of both the eighteenth-century militia and American individualism.

Some liberals place the hunter on a higher moral plane because he bypasses (however fleetingly) the cruelty and wastefulness of factory-farmed meat. Writing in The Omnivore’s Dilemma about shooting a pig—his first kill—Michael Pollan observes that it “forced me to look at and smell and touch and even to taste the death, at my hands, of a creature my size that, on the inside at least, had all the same parts.” But if that’s the way you feel, wouldn’t it be simpler just to be a vegetarian?

A better argument for hunting is that state conservation efforts depend heavily on hunting-license fees and taxes on firearms and ammunition. Hunters also can help maintain a balanced ecosystem by culling overrepresented species—bison in Yellowstone, elk in the Rockies, deer nearly everywhere. On the other hand, hunters cull the odd human being. Since 2008, nearly 200 people were killed in accidents, according to the International Hunter Education Association. (The group’s executive director admits this is a low-ball estimate.)

Meanwhile, “trophy” hunting of game that won’t be eaten and doesn’t need culling surely ought to be banned outright. At the Texas Hunt Lodge on the Guadalupe River, a rich person can shell out $6,150 to shoot a water buffalo imported from Asia for that express purpose. In what sense is this, um, civilized?

The most generous thing you can say about the hallowed tradition of hunting is that its dwindling popularity means its relevance to American gun culture is dwindling, too. Gun ownership turns out to be one of those things (like income) that during the past three decades became extremely concentrated in a few hands. One-third to one-half of the world’s civilian-owned guns reside in the United States. There’s even a gun-ownership 1 percent! According to CNN, a group of Americans representing less than 1 percent of the world’s population owns two-thirds of all the guns in America and one-third of all the guns in the world.

That means a lot of serious stockpiling is going on. Assault rifles are openly marketed with this imperative in mind. “Forces of opposition, bow down,” says the Web page for the Bushmaster Adaptive Combat Rifle. I don’t think they’re talking about elk. Today’s gun owner—let me put this as bluntly as I can—is much likelier than the gun owner of the mid-’70s to be a major criminal or a raving lunatic.

I was getting ready to admit that I have never fired a gun when I remembered that, like the president, I had gone skeet shooting. But my experience is irrelevant. The politically correct notion that only those with proper credentials can weigh in on this debate was always absurd, but is especially so now that a large majority of us don’t own firearms and don’t hunt. By fetishizing a fading tradition, liberals have only made their arguments for increased gun control less likely to have much of an impact. A recognition of their—our—dominant position would be a better way to start the debate.