Just How Low Should It Go?

Okay, I’ll be the first to admit it.   One of the problems facing hunting and most of our outdoor traditions today is the attrition factor.   We are simply losing more old-timers who used to hunt than we are replacing them with new blood interested in the outdoor sports.   That’s bad…and it certainly doesn’t bode well for the continuation of our great sporting heritage, either.

But it seems to me there is an extreme side to fixing this problem that is almost worse than the problem itself.   Just this past week, for instance, the Wisconsin Assembly voted to allow children as young as 8–years old to shoot a deer.   In many states, such as here in Minnesota, the minimum age for a youngster to pull the trigger on an animal the size of a deer is 12 years of age.   And even at that…Minnesota requires that a youth that age first take a hunter safety course before even getting that privilege.   Certainly seems reasonable to me.

Yet, the impetus for this Wisconsin legislation is coming from the National Shooting Sports Foundation (along with many conservation groups) under the program they’ve coined as “Families Afield.”   “Families Afield, an outreach initiative developed by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, National Wild Turkey Federation and the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance, is based on a shared and strong conviction that parents, not politics, should decide when their children are mature enough for hunting. Further, youths should have a chance to experience adult-supervised hunts before they are required to attain hunter education certification.”

Now typically I don’t find most programs the NSSF administers to be a problem, but on this one I do.   Oh sure, their research has found that a youngster hunting with an adult is statistically very safe.   That’s not my problem.   I just don’t think that most 8 year-olds are being put in a good situation by hunting big game with adults—and I don’t care if the adult is a parent, either.   I strongly believe that a youngster ought to have the minimal requirement of firearms safety certification before ever being put in that situation afield.   Let’s face it, most of the firearms safety programs all revolve around the magical age of 12…I believe this to be true in most states.   Not that a student couldn’t take it younger…in many states this is possible…but it simply is not very practical looking at it from a maturity point of view.

One of my main problems is that learning how to handle a firearm should not always come from a parent.   Let me repeat that.   In my opinion, the first person to teach a child how to properly and safely use a firearm SHOULD NOT necessarily be a parent.   Instead, it should be a person certified in firearms safety who knows how to instill the proper safety techniques into the young minds.   Far too often adults become a bit complacent and are not keenly aware of safety techniques to the same level as a qualified instructor.   For that reason…and that reason alone…I want my stepson in three years to begin to learn how to be a responsible hunter from someone else.   Then, I will follow-up with that formal training and hopefully do a good job reinforcing the lessons taught by these instructors over the rest of his life.

I currently have a stepson who just turned 9 years old a few weeks ago.   Would I feel comfortable with him toting anything more powerful than a BB gun right now.   Heavens no!   Is he mature enough to waylay a big buck and fully appreciate the dynamics of the experience on all levels.   Absolutely not!   Even though my stepson, Luke, is mature far beyond his age…he lacks the attention span and the capacity to properly respect a firearm, let alone the awesome responsibility of hunting with that firearm.

Personally, I think these folks are off-track in trying to lower the age of hunting to generate more interest in the sport.   It’s a bandaid approach to a much more serious problem that isn’t being addressed.   Moreover, this solution has the potential for seriously damaging our sport further in the eyes of the general public who will see the notion of younger kids carrying guns as being foolish.

GameboySo what is the real problem threatening a future generation of kids who are candidates to someday be hunters?   For most 8 year-olds it can be summed up in two words—“Game Boy.”   Or maybe in some households it’s the newer technology this year called “PSP.”   In either case, many kids will opt to sit indoors and play these devilish little electronic games rather than going outdoors and exploring the wonders of nature.   I know, for my stepson this toy is the first real addiction that he is dealing with in life—and he doesn’t even realize it.   He lives each day wanting to play this dastardly thing more and more and doesn’t care much else about what goes on around him.   But things are slowly changing in his world—thanks to some caring parents who see what is happening.

Indeed, I am slowly trying to wean him off this addiction.   Even though he asked for many different game cartridges for Christmas…Santa didn’t deliver a single new game.   Surprisingly, and despite all the great toys he did receive, Christmas of 2005 was a big bummer because he received no new game cartridges for this little electronic device.

I tried an experiment the other day.   He was sitting next to me playing the game when I turned on a fishing show on television.   I then watched his eyes…and they struggled to continue paying attention to the game in his hand.   Eventually the fishing show captured his full attention…but during the next commercial break I switch to another channel.   He went back to playing his electronic toy once again…but I found reason to go back to that fishing show just to prove a point to myself.   Indeed, the fishing show recaptured his attention and again the Gameboy lost some viewing priority.

In my mind that little test offered some encouragement.   First, I know he has interest in the outdoors…and honestly, a good fishing show with lots of action will almost always help to cultivate that interest.   Secondly, it’s the parent’s responsibility to foster that interest in the outdoors and the sport, not the state legislature by making things easier for kids to participate.   Last November when my stepson was 8 years old he was busy writing his letter to Santa with hopes he would get all the nice toys he dreamed of getting.   Thoughts of shooting a nice deer were simply not on his wish list during this same time.

Becoming a sportsman requires some very serious thought and maturity by the participant.   We shouldn’t expect a child who is still 8 years away from driving a car to have much of the same sort of pressures and responsibilities that we carry into the field while hunting.   There comes a time in all of our lives when we are old enough to participate…and that doesn’t need to be changed for the reasons some have suggested.   Kids should be allowed to be kids at this age…but that doesn’t mean that as adults we can’t begin planting the seeds to grow a real dedicated sportsman someday.   After all, anticipation is one of the key ingredients to building a lifelong interest in hunting for most youth.   Let them pretend they are like their father or uncle for a few more years before putting them in a position of rubbing shoulders with them in the deer stand by expecting them to carry a gun in hand.

Fortunately, there are many fine outdoor activities, like fishing, that a father/mother can use to introduce a young child to the wonders of the outdoors.   But let’s be patient with our future hunting partners by first letting them grow up a bit more.   In the long run our sport will be better served by not acting prematurely by changing laws to lower the hunting age to accomplish an outcome that can be best served by other means.

© 2006 Jim Braaten.  All Rights Reserved.   No Reproduction without Prior Permission.