As politicians debate gun control in Washington and Springfield, we've been hearing from gun owners in Illinois in the series called "Our Guns," about the many reasons Americans own them. Hunters and sportsmen have complex relationships to firearms. As IPR's Alex Keefe learned on an early winter morning, it's part history, part tradition and part recreation:
So the first thing I learn is that when goose hunters say :morning," they mean early, and when they say "cold,"
"Well, it is 6:36 and it's a brisky eight degrees."
That's Neal Brooks. He runs the Mazonia Hunt Club, a goose hunting outfit in Gardner, Illinois, about an hour southwest of Chicago. It's actually a little generous to call this a club. We've gathered on this bitter morning in a refurbished auto garage, made a bit cozier with hot coffee, old recliners - and walls thick with stuffed animal heads.
"We've got ducks, uh pheasants, lotta deer that I've shot with a bow.
This is the rendezvous point, where the hunters get the blood flowing before going out for game, in this case, Canada geese. Brooks agreed to let me tag along on a hunt with a couple his clients, so I could hear how hunting informed the way they think about guns and shooting. Thirty-two year-old old Mike Blaske, a logistics manager in Lockport, says it all started when he was a boy, going out hunting with his dad.
"So once I got old enough, my dad was looking for another hunting partner, and uh, took me when I was young, when I was seven years old. And I didn't have a gun or anything, but I sat in the blind and watched him."
Tradition and family, it seems, are a big part of hunting.
"I recognized as a kid that if I was gonna see my father during hunting season I'd better be hunting with him.
Scott Early is a 63-year-old retired Chicago lawyer, and his story starts the same way, hunting pheasant, with his dad and his godfather in southern Illinois."
"Once you got started, no matter what you're doing now, you're gonna find a way to get back to it. It gets in your blood. And that's where I am now.
As the sun gets higher, everybody pulls on their camouflage outerwear and climbs into an S-U-V that takes us to the hunting site. The shotguns are stowed in the back of the truck, unloaded. As we drive, I feel like Iím asking the obvious but I want the hunters to tell me what their guns MEAN to them.
"To me, that would be like saying, How do you regard your golf clubs? The golf clubs are just a means to an end. For me, and I think, for a lotta hunters, the enjoyment you get is the process, as much as the result."
We finally reach our destination, a harvested corn field with a long, low hut near one edge, camouflaged by reeds. This is the goose blind, where the hunters sit in folding chairs, hidden from the sky, as not to spook the geese and ruin their big shot. Everybody climbs in and gets ready.
Alex Keefe: Could you introduce us to, uh, your gun here? What is it?
EARLY: This is, uh, what's called a Benelli Nova. It's a pump.
Early says he owns a handful of guns. The one with him today is a shotgun, covered in camo - the kind of equipment that's made handle this extreme weather - unlike my own.
"I think, uh "
"You freezing up?"
"My palm sweat is freezing on my microphone."
Scott Early pulls out one of the several goose calls he has hanging around his neck. He translates what he's trying to tell the geese.
"Please pay attention to me. That was just, Hey, I'm here. Give me attention. And that's like a comfort call.
All of this work, the waking up early, setting up the decoys, calling the geese, the process, this is what Early says hunting is about.
"and seeing, in this case, a goose, lock its wings and come down and come in, and it's a gorgeous, gorgeous sight and it's like, you've done all this work, you've put all this patience and time in, and now it's the fulfillment of it."
But by around 9:30, we are still unfulfilled. And so the goose calling continues, to an empty sky. But the men swap hunting stories, they share jokes, they sip steaming hot coffee. At some point, the conversation turns toward politics.
Mike Blaske - the other hunter, points out the shotgun he's carrying isn't all that different from the type of military-style rifles some people want banned.
"My gun, I could use, anybody could use a shotgun as a malicious weapon. But, it's not going to be used that way."
For Blaske, his shotgun is practical. Think: getting dinner on the table. But for Early, the ex-lawyer, it's also Constitutional. Think: minutemen, anti-tyranny, the Second Amendment.
"It's very easy to sound paranoid in that discussion, but that's the way the amendment was drafted, and it was drafted for a very good reason, because the government knows that it has a citizenry that will not stand for what George Washington called the tyranny of government."
This lofty talk about the Constitution, gets me rethinking Earlys analogy - how his gun is like his golf clubs.
"You know, there isn't a national debate about golf clubs. You can't kill people with a golf club, most people aren't inclined to, and -
"But your question was about appreciation. And it may be personal attachment, because it's been such a useful tool to you. It may be because it has sentimental value. It may be any number of reasons. But it's not the kind of irrational, psychotic lust that a lot of people make it out to be."
Early says, before anyone rushes to change gun laws all of these relationships need to be considered.
We climb back in the truck , crank the heaters to full blast and begin to drive out of the corn field. Not a shot fired, but still a good day.
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