At home with guns

A firearm can be found in about 40 percent of American homes. Why are

Melanie Munther is like most American girls her age. The affable 13-year-old goes to slumber parties, sings in a choir, plays sports, cruises the mall, and listens to alternative rock music.

But Melanie also has a hobby that, in the wake of the Conyers, Ga., and Littleton, Colo., shootings, might disturb families in the cities and suburbs: She's comfortable clutching a 12-gauge shotgun.

Daydreaming in class of the rural mountain valleys stretching beyond Missoula, Melanie longs for hunting season when she and her dad, Greg, set out into the wilds of Montana to stalk pheasants, turkeys, and waterfowl.

She isn't alone. Dozens of her classmates at school talk openly of guns, live in close proximity to them, and do so without any pretense of menace.

"My dad would come home from his hunting trips and tell us about all the fun he had," Melanie says. "I became interested in hunting because I thought it would be a good father-daughter thing we could do together. And I was right."

A lethal mix?

West Paducah, Ky. Jonesboro, Ark. Springfield, Ore. Littleton. Conyers. Over the past few years, violent schoolyard shootings in these communities have fed a public perception that guns and school-age kids are potentially a lethal mix. Earlier this month, on Mother's Day, first lady Hilary Rodham Clinton urged parents : "Protect our children from guns."

It is a concern that many more parents are taking seriously (See Page 15). Sixteen states now have laws that restrict a child's access to guns at home. The US Congress is now considering tighter restrictions on gun sales and mandating safety locks for handguns.

There is clearly a rural-urban divide over the perception of guns in North America. In rural communities, firearms are generally not considered instruments of power or protection. In many homes like the Munther's, they are considered household tools that, like any tool, can be dangerous if mishandled.

"Yes, we have guns in our house, but we've tried to instill in Melanie a sense that guns are something you respect, not fear," says Greg Munther, an active hunter and retired district ranger with the US Forest Service. "Living in Montana, guns are part of the culture."

In many states where hunting is a common pastime, hundreds of thousands of kids and adults regularly head to the woods. In some towns, so many students are absent on the first day of deer hunting season that the public schools close.

Like Mr. Munther, parents in these communities say that teaching gun safety is an integral part of their culture.

"I keep my guns locked in a room. And I put locks on the guns that go through the trigger and pump action," says Bart McCollum, the father of two boys, ages 8 and 11, in Mount Carmel, Pa. "They can't play paint ball. I won't even let them point a paint ball gun at anyone."

Some 700,000 students will enroll in hunter safety courses this year in the US and Canada. Some courses will be taught in public schools.

"Tragedies like the one at Columbine High School in Littleton make the newspaper headlines and shape public perception about guns," says Ron Aasheim, a spokesman for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. "But there is a segment of the American population, including many, many young people, who come into contact with guns every day and do not encounter tragedy or misuse them. This is one of the untold stories."

Most gun owners, like the 6,000 students in Montana who must complete gun safety courses this fall before they can buy a hunting license, do so out of tradition.

"My father and grandfather hunted together. And my father took me when I was young. It was my first real male-bonding experience," says Mr. McCollum, a sixth-grade social-studies teacher at Mount Carmel Middle School. "I see a lot of boys who just don't spend enough time with their fathers."

He laments that in Pennsylvania, hunting is now illegal on Sundays. On Saturdays, his sons play soccer. "Next year [when one son turns 12], I won't have the opportunity to take my son hunting unless he gives up sports," he says.

Guns have been a part of the social fabric of the United States since its founding, says Jim Posewitz, a lecturer, author, and founder of an organization that promotes hunting ethics. The escalating fear of guns, he says, is prompted in part by a demographic shift: America has gone from being a nation of farmers to one increasingly urban and cut off from a world where activities like hunting are a way of life.

Perceptions changing

"The public's overall concept of the utility of firearms has definitely changed," agrees Chris Chaffin with the National Shooting Sports Foundation based in Newtown, Conn. "Fewer people have a romantic image of grandpa's shotgun hanging over the fireplace mantel and providing a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. Instead, they see guns as a vehicle for maintaining law and order, as tools of power and control. Unfortunately, for a lot of people their first impression of firearms is often a negative one."

Mr. Chaffin says there is a difference between trying to aggrandize guns in the eyes of a child and mentoring them about the obligation to be responsible. He's careful not to promote the idea of gun classes in school, but he argues that a public which is better educated about guns is safer.

If schools teach a wide array of nonacademic subjects, such as sex education, balancing a checkbook, and swimming, he asks, then why not prepare students for a society where guns are abundant?

On the issue of gun-control, in many hunting households support depends on the type of weapon. Many oppose restrictions on firearms used for hunting, but may support controls on handguns and semi-automatic weapons.

"You don't need an Uzi to kill an elk," says Jim Barrett, the father of three children in Livingston, Mont. "To me, the crux of the gun-control argument should be prohibiting the sale of assault weapons, not trying to do away with firearms used in hunting. Personally, I think the phenomenon of people developing gun fetishes and people who turn to guns in passionate moments to relieve their anger is an atrocious development in our culture."

Several decades ago, Mr. Barrett moved to Montana from Detroit with ambitions of becoming a "mountain man." He took up hunting, shooting elk and deer to put meat on his dinner table, and acquired an appreciation for guns.

But Barrett no longer hunts. He says he can't ethically justify hunting because he doesn't need the game for food anymore. And he has made no effort to introduce his daughters and young son to guns. "If my kids develop an interest, I won't try to dissuade them. I will be there to help them become aware of all that is involved. I would tell them that a gun is not the most important element of hunting. It is a dangerous apparatus that happens to be part of the process. If you hunt because you worship guns, then I think it is wrong."

Video-game hunters

While acknowledging that hunting is violent toward game animals, David Knotts, executive director of the International Hunter Education Association, in Fort Collins, Colo., says that paradoxically young hunters are more in touch with life and death than kids who have little contact with wildlife and whose world is tethered to a digital reality where virtual murder doesn't have consequences.

Hunters see death up close. Mr. Knott argues that hunting encourages kids to carefully consider their intentions and their actions, while video games do not.

Mr. Posewitz adds, "There's a perception ... that hunters are, by their very nature, violent." But he notes: "More people get hurt playing golf and billiards than they do hunting."

Posewitz points to his native state of Wisconsin. In 1909, in what he calls "the dark ages before hunter education," 3,985 deer were harvested in Wisconsin and the same year there were 44 fatal shootings, equating to about one human fatality for every 90 deer taken. Two years ago, in 1997, over 400,000 deer were shot by 700,000 hunters and there was one human fatality.

But Posewitz also points to a hunting population in decline. Three years ago, the US Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that 14.5 million people hunt in the US based on the number of hunting licenses sold. Others place the number at closer to 20 million. But all agree the number of hunters is falling off.

In Montana, Mr. Aasheim of the state wildlife department, says that for some families hunting is a social glue.

Mr. Munther notes he never put a hard sell on his daughter, Melanie, to hunt. "She came to me when she was 11 and said she wanted to take a firearm safety course so she could learn how to hunt," he remembers. "I was surprised but at the same time I was pleased she had taken in interest."

Gun safety at 12

In Montana, 12 is the minimum legal hunting age and all young hunters must successfully complete a course in hunter education, which places a heavy emphasis on gun safety. Melanie learned how to store a gun, carry it, load and unload ammunition, check to make sure the trigger is on safety, and clean the barrel of her shotgun so that it fires cleanly.

She has since persuaded a few of her girlfriends to take the program. "Even if they don't hunt, and some of them don't have any interest in hunting, they will know how to handle guns," she says. "I have more respect for guns now because I realize how dangerous they can be but I'm not afraid of them."

Her dad suggests that problems occur in some families when guns are treated as objects of power and they cultivate a mystique that can be alluring to kids. "We're not much of a gun household and we don't center our lives around them," Mr Munther says. "We secure our guns in a cabinet safely under lock and key. The only time they come out is for hunting or trapshooting [clay targets]."

Yet even in rural Montana, the recent school shootings are changing attitudes and actions. At Melanie's school, carrying backpacks is now forbidden to prevent handguns and other weapons from being smuggled into schools.

"We didn't have a problem with kids bringing their guns to school but the shootings in Littleton left us all shocked," Melanie says. "You have to wonder, if it could happen there, could it happen here?"

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