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Guns, Game, and Control: Who Are America’s Hunters?

• December 21, 2012 • 3:13 PM

Since the Newtown massacre I have heard repeatedly that one necessary act for advancing gun control is to get “hunters” (or at least rural types) on board. That line of thought has been boosted by “pro-gun” Sen. Joe Manchin, a reliable NRA lieutenant who’s now uttering heresies like:

“I don’t know anyone in the sporting or hunting arena that goes out with an assault rifle. I don’t know anyone that needs 30 rounds in a clip to go hunting. I mean, these are things that need to be talked about.”

(Need and want are different animals, of course. Fast-firing rifles with big magazines—your “assault rifle,” my “modern sporting rifle” — are a growth market for gunmakers.)

How many hunters are there in the United States that they could swing the pendulum? The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service answered that question yesterday with the release of its 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, which reports there were 13.7 million last year, a recent record. With the Census Bureau saying there were 312 million Americans last year, that means a little over 4 percent of the population hunted, or 6 percent if you exclude minors. (Way less than say, Europe, outside of Finland or Ireland.) According to FWS:

The across-the-board increases in 2011 hunting participation, day, and expenditure estimates run counter to the downward trends documented in the preceding three FHWAR National Surveys. From 1991 to 2006, hunting participation had dropped 11 percent and the number of hunting days had not significantly changed. The 9 percent participant and 28 percent day increases puts the 2011 hunting status on par with that of 1991 hunting, the high point of hunting in the last twenty years.

Allow me to cavil for you: not everyone hunts with guns, the figures come from Census polling and excludes those under 16, not everyone who considers themselves a hunter may have been able to hunt, etc. But the number remains a figure with some provenance, and the survey itself dates back to 1955, so it’s hard to suss out any pro- or anti-Second Amendment intent in taking it.

And, of course, hunters and their $34 billion industry shouldn’t be taken as an automatic proxy for gun enthusiasts of all stripes. Fights over large magazines, concealed carry, and even the arguments over self-defense aren’t hunting issues, regardless of where a guy toting a .30-06 falls on any of those controversies. That the NRA (four million members and growing) has evolved away from its marksmanship-and-hunting focus to a more omnibus gun-rights stance might reflect its membership’s wishes (or at least it’s well-heeled sponsors’ wishes).

But rather than fire down that rabbit hole, let’s just see who America’s hunters are. White men, mostly. Our survey says … 12.2 million men hunted last year, compared to 1.5 million women. And older. The percentage of population that hunts increases with advancing years until age 65 and older, when it trails off. I’d be willing to bet that many of those older former-hunters still picture themselves in the field, even if infirmity keeps them housebound. And 94 percent of U.S. hunters are white.

As you might guess based on culture and convenience, the more rural your home the more likely you are to hunt. Big city dwellers hunt at half the national average; people living outside “metropolitan statistical areas” are three time more likely to hunt. So it shouldn’t surprise that hunting is more popular in flyover country than it is on the coasts, with the east south central region (Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama) and just under double the national average, followed by the region comprising the states of North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, and Minnesota.

Household income? Americans are more likely to hunt as their income rises, up to the six-figure mark, where it starts to decline. The lowest rates are among those making less than $20,000 a year, a demographic it seems would have the most interest in supplementing its protein.

Sixty-two percent of hunters were either high school grads or had some college (1 to 3 years). As the survey says, participation rates “varied little among people with different levels of educational attainment,” although it does trail off among those with five or more years of college under their non-Sam Browne belt.

Let me close with what they hunt. Big game—deer, turkeys, elk and bear, mostly—is by far the most popular target, followed by small game, i.e. squirrels, rabbits and pheasants, and then migratory birds such as ducks. That last category, the migratory birds, drew 2.6 million hunters in 2011, about a quarter of number of those seeking big game. None of those animals shoot back and few seem canny enough to require approaching them with a concealed Glock.

My own unheralded hunting career was in pursuit of small game, squirrels that routinely weakened the canal banks at a high school buddy’s family farm. My trusty .22 saw some action plinking at those varmints, and I believe I did kill some of them—reliable accounts report they died laughing.

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

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