As a gun owner and a hunter, I was as shaken as anyone when a deranged gunman armed with a high-powered semiautomatic rifle stormed into a Connecticut elementary school and massacred 26 people, 20 of them children. And in the weeks since, I have been disgusted as the NRA and its corporate masters launched a cynical disinformation campaign designed to convince responsible gun owners and hunters like me that our most fundamental rights and cherished traditions are under attack.
I've been outraged by the gun lobby's delusional insistence that any effort to restrict these high-powered killing machines -- designed to spray their victims with 30 or more rounds in a matter of seconds without reloading -- is just a stalking horse for a plot to gut the Second Amendment, to strip people of the right to defend their homes and property, and to muzzle the right of hunters to head into the field with the weapon of our choice.
It's time to set the record straight. The weapons and magazines that the gun lobby is protecting -- these so-called "modern sporting rifles" -- are anything but sporting weapons. In fact, in several states, including my own, they can only be legally used to kill one thing: people.
Despite all of that, the gun lobby's disinformation campaign continues.
Nowhere has that been more evident than here in my home state of Pennsylvania, where the controversy came to a head last week when the organizers of the Eastern Sports and Outdoor Show, faced with a boycott by major retailers and hunting groups over their decision to ban the display of semiautomatic assault rifles, decided to indefinitely postpone the multimillion-dollar show that for decades has been one of the largest celebrations of hunting and fishing in the nation.
To hear the boycotters tell it, their campaign to bring the show to its knees was a blow for freedom. Josh Fleming, spokesman for the National Wild Turkey Federation, one of the first groups to join the boycott, said the fight, in Pennsylvania and across the country, was a battle for a way of life. "One of the things that people don't understand is the connection between preservation of hunting and the continuation of the conservation movement," Fleming told me. "Hunters are a driving force in conservation."
"And when you allow the tradition to erode, you're eroding the foundation of American conservation... and we're working to lower barriers to bring in new hunters, not make it more difficult to hunt," he said.
That argument might be a little more credible if you actually could use semiautomatic assault weapons, euphemistically called "modern sporting rifles" by the industry, to hunt in Pennsylvania or several neighboring states.
But you can't. Rich Palmer, director of the Bureau of Wildlife Protection at the Pennsylvania Game Commission, reminded me that, with only the narrowest exemption for people with severe disabilities, it's against the law in the Commonwealth to use "modern sporting rifles" to hunt anything.
The same is true in Delaware and New Jersey. New York, which recently adopted a rigorous new gun law, severely restricts the number of rounds that a hunter can load into the weapon. So does Maryland. In Ohio, they can only be used on nuisance animals like feral pigs and coyotes.
But, thanks to Pennsylvania's Castle Doctrine, and similar "stand your ground" laws in 22 other states, it is perfectly legal to use your AR-15 and your 30-round magazine to shoot and kill an intruder.
Even in those cases, "modern sporting rifles" may not be as useful as their boosters would have us believe. While they may have been the weapons of choice for crazed killers in 35 mass shootings since 1982, they are, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report, rarely useful in self-defense. Of 260 cases in 2011 in which alleged criminals were killed by civilians in the United States, only 12 were taken down by rifles of any description, from the most menacing modern sporting rifle to the most rudimentary squirrel gun. During the same period, 49 alleged attackers were killed by civilians wielding knives.
And yet, despite their limited value as either true sporting weapons or as part of a personal arsenal for self-defense, they do have value:
According to the Freedom Group, which makes the Bushmaster used in the Connecticut massacre, between 2007 and 2011, while the rest of American industry was suffering through a recession followed by a period of glacial growth, and sales of traditional hunting rifles declined, the market for "modern sporting rifles" was on a tear, growing 27 percent. And that growth has only increased in the weeks since Newtown.
In other words, controversy has been good for business.
Maybe I'm just a cynic, and maybe boycotting the outdoor show really was an attempt to protect the rights of hunters and homeowners, to pass on the grand tradition of responsible gun ownership and stewardship of our national treasures to a new generation of hunters.
But the hunter in me has learned over the years to sniff out a dodge. I can't help but wonder whether this is another grand American tradition -- one that involves ginning up fake outrage to generate real profits. The skeptic in me suspects that sincere, responsible sportsmen are being used as human shields by conglomerates seeking to pawn off products that aren't all they're cracked up to be to pad their bottom lines.