Bushkill, Pa. — IT was midmorning, and the sun was over my shoulder. A breeze rustled the dead leaves still clinging to the oaks, just enough to cover the sound as I fox-footed my way through the undergrowth.
A few dozen yards ahead of me, the doe stopped midstride. Her muscles tightened, and she raised her head and scanned the forest. For an instant, I thought she had spotted me. She hadn’t. She moved on, a couple more yards.
We had been doing this for more than an hour, and now, one way or the other, it was about to come to an end. I pulled the hammer back on my 50-caliber flintlock, and circled above her until I found a place where I had a clear, open shot. I knelt down and drew a bead on her. I took a deep breath, and let it out slowly.
It had been, from a hunting perspective, a terrible season for me up to that point. Three times in the previous week, I had deer clearly in my sights and three times I had fired and missed. That was twice more than in any previous season since I had started hunting, and I had tried to figure out why. Maybe my luck was giving out at last, I thought. Or maybe, now that I’m closing in on 60, my eyesight was. Maybe it was the gun, a primitive weapon that lacks the technological capacity to compensate for my shortcomings.
Deep down I knew that none of those things could explain my dismal season.
And so, in an effort to clear my head, I’d sit down at my computer and scan the news. But that would knot my stomach more. Mass shootings, in Paris, Colorado and Southern California, shootings fueled by hate and fear, and boundless arrogance.
Sitting there, I’d feel my own bile rising at our cowardly refusal to consider any kind of steps that might limit access to rapid-fire weapons of mass overcompensation, to terrorists foreign and domestic. And I’d grieve over the peculiarly American tendency to argue that we need that firepower to protect ourselves against the imagined predation of some overweening government while we ignore the danger that is mowing us down right this minute in our streets, our churches and our clinics.
And so to escape my rage, or at least suppress it, I’d grab my rifle and head back into the woods.
At last, after more than an hour, there we were, the doe and I. She was no more than 30 feet away. It would be a clean shot. An easy kill. My luck, at least, would change.
And then I eased the hammer down. I rested the flintlock against a tree, clapped my hands and sent the doe scurrying off into the woods.
I could have made that shot blindfolded. I knew the gun was true. But I was not.
It would be convenient to chalk up my decision not to shoot that doe as an act of mercy, or, if you’re so inclined, as a moment of weakness. It would be easy to imagine that in the wake of all the blood that has been spilled and in the din over what exactly gun rights are meant to be, that I lost my taste for the tang of gunpowder. I’ll confess that there were a few moments when I did consider hanging up my gun for good. But doing so would be a capitulation to those Second Amendment extremists in the upper echelons of the National Rifle Association and in Congress who have no clue what the real purpose of a gun is. I would be letting them define me and my weapon.
The simple fact was that I was too poisoned by bitterness to use my weapon honorably.
The anger and fear had robbed me of the one thing that every hunter who understands the awful responsibility that comes with taking a life desperately needs, the one thing that anyone who ever picks up a gun needs. Clarity of purpose.
Though we haven’t necessarily always interpreted it this way, Americans believe the Second Amendment guarantees our individual right to bear arms. That’s fine. I’ll bear mine. But I also retain the right not to pull the trigger unless I can do it with a clean conscience. I will, I’m certain, load my flintlock and go back into the woods. Maybe next time, I’ll take the doe. Maybe I won’t. But if I do, it will be because I found a way to understand my anger and my fear. In the meantime, I’ll be hunting for that understanding.
The New York Times
Dec. 20, 2015