What is more iconic than guns and Texans? Consider the photo of my great-great-great-grandfather Joseph Burleson (1800-1877) who immigrated to Texas in 1833 before it had become a republic. Consider, too, the weaponry in hand.
Like many boys I knew, growing up in Texas meant learning how to use a gun. This was a way of life that went back generations. Our favorite TV shows were “The Rifleman,” “The Lone Ranger” and “Bonanza,” all featuring good guys with guns. Growing up in Texas meant hunting trips with my dad, brother, grandfather, uncles and cousins. Some of my fondest memories of my dad are of him blowing a cow horn to signal to his pack of beagles that it was time to return to camp. On moonlit nights in the Piney Woods of East Texas, we would turn the beagles loose while we sat around a fire and listened to their baying on the trail. If we were lucky, the dogs would run a rabbit near enough to camp so we could see the chase by firelight.
My dad taught my brother and me proper care and use of weapons — knives, guns and bows. He taught us how to walk in the woods — slowly, quietly, going upwind with eyes peeled. I began carrying a BB gun when I was in first grade and a .22 rifle when I was in third grade. My first deer rifle was a bolt-action .243 with scope that I got for a Christmas present in the seventh grade. I dreamed of whitetail bucks with big racks during my teenage years.
In addition to learning valuable lessons about discipline and safety, hunting was also an encounter with nature. While I did not particularly like the explosive crack of the rifle when I pulled the trigger, I enjoyed immensely the camaraderie of the boys and men at the deer camp and the solitude of a deer stand in the beautiful Texas Hill Country. Watching a herd of whitetails cautiously feeding on leafy buds and acorns in front of your stand on a sun-splashed winter afternoon seemed almost like a religious experience to me. You sat attentively, focused on the myriad of signs around you — the sky, the sun, the breeze, the sound of a deer cough or of bird chatter. Watching. Waiting. All was forgotten — no homework, no girlfriends, no coaches, no chores, no pimples. It was just you and the world in a kind of primal communion. You were doing something that your father, grandfather, great-grandfather and so on had done since time immemorial.
In my early twenties, I lived in Nairobi, Kenya, where I was a school teacher at a Baptist high school. On school breaks, I spent time camping in the national parks of Aberdare, Amboseli, Kakamega, Lake Bagoria, Lake Nakuru, Masai Mara, Meru, Nairobi, Samburu and Tsavo. Hunting had been outlawed in Kenya two years earlier, but I enjoyed experiences that were similar to hunting in these magical parks as I took photographs. There, the element of danger from elephants, lions, buffalo, rhinos and leopards made focus on the present — and not on one’s personal problems — easy to accomplish.
After marriage and children, it seemed my hunting days had ended. It was not really a decision, just something that happened. In my bedroom closet my deer rifle and a shotgun lay dormant for several years till they were stolen in a break-in. For a short while, in my late 30s, I tried hunting deer with a bow. Some say that’s a way for folks to hunt without having to kill anything. I enjoyed practicing with the bow in the backyard. It was Zen-like therapy to stand, grip, breathe, draw, focus and release. Then, to sit again in a tree in stillness and watch deer. Although they never came close enough for me to get a shot off.
Looking back in this nostalgic way, I have much to be grateful for from the sport of hunting. That’s not untypical of many of us who grew up in Texas.
Take the survey
Now, let me move from this nostalgic journey to present reality by posing a series of questions. Will you take my four-part survey? It should take you about one minute.
- First, whether you are a hunter or non-hunter: Are you grateful for the State of Texas for regulating hunting?
Hint: I have known many hunters and, to a person, they have been supportive of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for rules that protect hunters and the environment. No hunter I know wants hunters to shoot deer with an AK-47 assault weapon. No hunter I know wants hunters to shoot deer with a pellet gun. No hunter I know wants a felon to be able to hunt with a firearm. No hunter I know wants a hunter to shoot a deer on someone else’s private property without permission. No hunter I know wants to be able to use drones to kill game. No hunter I know wants to be able to use artificial light to hunt deer at night. No hunter I know wants a legally blind person to hunt alone without assistance. No hunter I know wants to shoot deer from a helicopter or airplane. These gun activities are illegal in Texas. They are illegal because the state put limits on how you can use a gun in the sport of hunting. These regulations are for safety and for the conservation of wildlife.
- Second question: Are the State of Texas restrictions on guns, as they relate to hunting, infringing on Second Amendment rights? Have you ever even been asked this question?
Hint: I have never heard a hunter assert that these restrictions violate his or her rights. In fact, the hunters I know are scrupulous in their attention to these regulations; they value them and see them as needed.
- Third question: Does the regulation of guns in non-hunting situations necessarily threaten your Second Amendment rights? (And try to be consistent in answering questions two and three.)
Hint: Texans are not allowed to use assault weapons to hunt game but assault weapons can be used legally in non-hunting activities. (Note: the NRA has opposed limiting a citizen’s “right” to own assault weapons.)
- Fourth question: Given the continued carnage from gun violence in America, will any Republican elected to office in the State of Texas support efforts to regulate guns in non-hunting activities?
Hint 1: Look up the campaign financing of state Sen. Brian Birdwell, state Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, Congressman Bill Flores, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. How much money do they receive from the NRA? And, if they were to support gun regulation, what is the likelihood they would be “primaried” by NRA-supported Republican opponents?
Hint 2: Listen to the rhetoric of elected McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara, a Republican, who said in 2013 that he would not enforce a federal law that restricted access to guns or ammunition. (I assume he was only talking about non-hunting gun activity.)
When I answered my survey above, I answered NO to all four questions. How did you answer?
- One more question. While my great-great-great-grandfather Joseph Burleson, who came to Texas before it became a republic, may have needed guns to survive for protection and hunting, my son and daughter have never owned or even shot a gun. Garrett, who grew up listening to stories about my hunting experiences with my dad, brother and grandfather, asked me when he was 9 years old: “Dad, will I have to shoot a deer?”
It was a question I’ve never forgotten. A link in the chain of gun knowledge was broken in the Burleson clan. That was not really intentional on my part. It just happened. While I appreciate the values of hunting with guns, Texas and Texans are changing. There is a generation of Texans coming into adulthood who have not grown up thinking, as I did, that guns are part and parcel of what it means to become an adult.
Signs of hope
Three things give me hope for what at the moment seems a bleak future as we continue to experience the unimaginable carnage from gun violence. First, a new generation of Texans — one not nostalgic about guns — is beginning to win election to political office. Second, Democrats are, for the most part, not beholden to NRA money to gain or hold office. Third, Texas has always regulated guns throughout its history. And not only in hunting situations. In 1871, the Texas Legislature banned the carrying of guns outside the home.
My final question: Will you consider voting for elected officials who will say YES to common-sense gun regulation in non-hunting situations?