Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Cheney shoots a man

I've been turning this over in my head, and I thought I'd let the blogosphere ponder it. Vice-President Cheney shot a guy in the face. Bad.

What if I say: VP Cheney shot a lawyer in the face? Bad, of course. But as bad?

How about: VP Cheney shot a Republican lawyer in the face? Bad, still. But as bad? Better?

Setting aside the comedy of Vice-President Dick "Go F--- Yourself" Cheney shooting a 78 year-old Republican lawyer in the face, there is a serious matter. First, Cheney has come under criticism from hunting safety trainers:
"Ultimately, the trigger-puller is always at fault," said Wayne Doyle, Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks hunter education coordinator.

Doyle said Cheney should have stopped when Whittington went to retrieve his bird.

"Hunters always stop and wait if someone gets out of line," Doyle said. "The hunt should not resume until everyone's back in line."

Ray Fischer, an instructor from Claflin, said Cheney also broke one of the 10 rules of safe gun handling --"Be sure of your target and beyond" -- listed in the Kansas hunter education book.

"He was sure of his target, but he obviously wasn't sure of what was behind it," Fischer said.

Doyle said those are among the primary lessons more than 400,000 students have learned in Kansas hunter education classes.
Kansas can be proud of its hunters. In a Washington Monthly article titled "The End of Hunting?," much is made of the loss of access to hunters. Unlike many states, Kansas has worked hard to encourage landowners to make their land available, using hunting license fees to compensate landowners and to have state hunting wardens help patrol their land. Unlike many states, the number of hunters in Kansas has held constant, while it has dropped off in many other states.

This is a remarkably progressive, and very simple program that was first tested out in 1995 and that has grown ever since.

Dick Cheney was hunting on private land that almost certainly doesn't offer walk-in access. In addition, he was, as he has before, hunting farm-raised animals which had been released in the field shortly before the hunt. This is not what we might call "sporting." Ed Brayton cites an instance where Cheney and his gang went out on land where 500 pheasants were released the day before, and 417 wound up getting shot. That just doesn't sit right with me.

I have no beef with hunting. Humans eradicated a lot of predators, and have good reasons not to want mountain lions or wolves wandering through Lawrence, KS, let alone suburban New York City. That means deer populations are exploding. The solution, and one widely embraced, is relaxed rules on hunting, including the hiring of marksmen in some municipalities. Hunting is not only a legitimate sport, but an ecological necessity in many areas.

But hunting farm raised animals is trivial. There's an analogy to be made with the Iraq war. Before we invaded, we wanted a good fight with terrorists. There were not, at that point, any terrorists in Iraq. We invaded, they showed up, and we've been fighting them there. The goal of having a war on terrorism is to eliminate terrorism, or reduce it at least. The goal of hunting is to reduce populations of some game species. If you artificially stock the land first, you get fuller game bags, but you haven't actually used any skill nor reduced the natural quail population. In Iraq, we aren't actually reducing the net amount of terrorism, but we do get to feel like we're doing something.

That Cheney failed to take reasonable precautions with a firearm is deplorable. The fact that a piece of birdshot migrated to his victim's heart is very bad. The fact that he was encouraging the sort of closed-land practices which are hurting hunting as an institution is bad, too. And the fact that he couldn't even be bothered to invest some skill in the hunt just adds insult to injury.

Everyone deserves to blow of some steam, and we all know Cheney has plenty of steam to blow off. But if the goal was just to fire some shotguns, clay pigeons on a skeet range would work fine, and the risks of him accidentally killing or blinding his friend would drop substantially.

I want to emphasize that I think this is not even a tempest, making it a tropical depression in a teapot at best. I don't see this as some sign of how black Cheney's remaining heart fragments must be. We'll call it an accident and let it pass. But there's an opportunity here to discuss the state of hunting in America, and that actually would be a worthwhile conversation.

The number of hunters has fallen at least partly because access has become expensive. Bidding wars drive prices sky-high. And that's fine, it's what markets do. The Kansas solution manipulates that market to achieve a goal that society at large thinks is more valuable. Hunting is an important tradition throughout rural America, and hunting also thins deer herds which would otherwise damage crops. It's worth the state's time and effort to rejigger the market in a way that encourages people to continue the family hunting tradition and that reduces crop losses. This is what government ought to do. By his own example, Cheney is working against that laudable goal, and I'd like to see more attention on that.