If you want to start an argument these days, just bring up the topic of guns.
On one side, you’re going to have folks who are concerned about gun violence, safety and a fear that America’s “gun culture” will leave the country’s populace vulnerable to things like mass shootings.
On the other side are people who assert that one of our nation’s fundamental freedoms is to be able to possess firearms, and to use them for protection from well-armed ne’er-do-wells who are the real problem. Their thinking: A well-armed populace is a deterrent to crime, not an enabler.
I recently read a piece on Outside Online about whether or not you should carry firearms into national parks. It got 209 comments. Any other similar story is going to get similar reactions. People are fired up about this.
You can read the article yourself, but the main point the author makes is that he sees no reason to carry firearms into a national park.
It’s legal to do so. It got me to thinking about the subject, and exploring the pros and cons.
It’s not a huge burden, physically speaking. Depending on the firearm and the amount of ammunition you take with you, it’s not going to be a big deal in terms of weight. Composite materials have taken the weight out of a lot of sidearms.
Protection from unfriendly wildlife encounters. Yep, the backcountry is full of wildlife. Most wildlife is pretty harmless, but predators such as bears, mountain lions and others can make a cool moment turn into something deadly in a hurry. Other wildlife, like moose, can be aggressive. Your Bowie knife or trekking pole won’t be much of a deterrent. Sure, stuff like bear spray can work, but the stopping power of a high-caliber sidearm is one of the few tools you have that can meet deadly force with deadly force.
Protection from unfriendly people. Most of the folks you meet in the backcountry are pretty cool. And if not, they keep to themselves. But that’s not to say there aren’t unsavory types who disappear into the woods to cause problems. Drunks at campsites, people setting up mobile meth labs or criminals guarding secret pot farms – not an everyday thing, but they’re out there. Some of them come with bad intentions, and are themselves, armed. Other predatory types don’t necessarily go away just because you’re out in nature. The thinking: an unarmed person confronted by these types is going to be a victim.
It’s a right. The law and the courts, starting with the Second Amendment, give people the right to possess firearms.
It’s dead weight. If you’re a serious hiker or backpacker, every ounce counts. Lugging along a firearm and ammunition you are very unlikely to use is a mini-boat anchor you will regret hauling around.
Non-lethal countermeasures for wildlife are better. Being aware of your surroundings, how to handle wildlife encounters and non-lethal weapons like bear spray are better, lighter, cheaper and lack the consequences of a firearm incident gone wrong. Plus, everyone (thing) gets to walk away alive.
Backcountry crime is way overhyped. Criminals are looking for opportunity. Places that are hard to get to, not accessible by car and devoid of “victims” aren’t going to attract criminals.
It’s a disaster waiting to happen. Many gun owners are responsible, but let’s be honest: Given the stress of a confrontation, how many people are really ready to use a firearm? Doesn’t having one heighten the chance for an accident? The one thing that’s true about firearms is that once the trigger is pulled, you can’t take that bullet back.
First, a disclaimer. I’m a gun owner. I’m not an NRA member and haven’t been hunting in years. I’ve never used my firearms for anything except hunting or shooting clay pigeons.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I’ve got a few thoughts on this subject.
I’ve spent a decent amount of time in the backcountry, most of it with people, occasionally on my own.
Personally, I’ve never seen the need to carry a firearm in the places I’ve been in Oklahoma, Colorado and New Mexico. Not that I haven’t had wildlife encounters – I have, one a bit scary – but nothing where I felt I would have been safer packing heat.
I also remember a backpacking trip I took a few years back where one member of our group decided to bring a sidearm. It was a beautiful high-caliber revolver, complete with a leather holster and several rounds. It was a weighty piece, for sure, and added to the guy’s already hefty pack.
Our trailhead was sitting somewhere below 10,000 feet, and our campsite was about 1,500 feet higher, going up steep switchbacks. It didn’t take him long to realize his firearm was weighing him down. He was struggling a bit with the altitude anyway, so he got a fitter, lighter member of our group to take the gun and holster back to the car and lock it away.
We didn’t meet anyone who was even close to being hostile. Our wildlife encounters were far from unfriendly. He didn’t miss his gun for a second.
Now, a caveat. Not all backcountry environments are the same. So here comes another story.
Many years back, I was in Montana doing some fishing not too far from Bozeman. I had been near a lake and decided to go below the dam to some streams that looked more promising.
The brush was thick and tall. Just getting to a place to cast was a challenge, and I couldn’t see more than 20 feet in any direction.
About then, I remembered some stories I’d heard that week from Montanans about their own experience with bears and other animals out here. As in, how easily a bear can run up a mountain. Or the time when a hunting guide at her camp had to face down a grizzly with her lever-action rifle, narrowly missing her own demise. And so on.
I realized that if there was a grizzly bear nearby, I wouldn’t know it until I ran right up on it. Startling a bear, or angering a mother with her cubs nearby, and I would be a statistic. I had no weaponry at all.
If this place had been in Colorado, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it. Not so in Montana. Or any other place where grizzly bears call home. I bugged out of there.
I completely understand why people would carry a firearm in grizzly country, in states like Montana, Wyoming or Alaska. I wonder if it would be foolish not to.
My conclusions? For starters, know where you’re going. Know the risks in terms of wildlife encounters, as well as people. Prepare accordingly.
If you choose to carry a firearm, be very comfortable with it. Know how it works. Be well-practiced in shooting it. Know the law in terms of when you can carry it and where, and when you are legally allowed to draw down, aim and fire. And definitely know how to retain your weapon, just in case someone tries to take it from you during a confrontation.
Most importantly, be mentally prepared that if you pull your firearm on something or someone, you must be ready to fire and to shoot to kill. Otherwise, you’re asking for untold trouble.
If you are with a group, do the right thing. Make sure the group is aware you plan to carry. And if members of your group are not comfortable with that, be big enough to honor that. Explain why you wish to carry, and if they’re still freaked out, stow your firearm or pull yourself out of that particular trip. Some people just get weirded out by guns, and no amount of reasoning will change that.
Also, do not let the fact that you are carrying a firearm lull you into a false sense of security. Be as vigilant out there as you would be if you weren’t carrying.
Lastly, understand human nature. Bringing a firearm into a human confrontation automatically heightens tensions. Your firearm is a method of last resort.
In short, be safe and understand your responsibility. You have a right to carry, but it’s not like a gun is a fashion accessory or a badge of machismo. It’s a tool, and a serious one at that. Owning and carrying one is a huge responsibility.
Got any thoughts on this subject? Or any stories? Let me know in the comments section. I’d love to hear what you all have to say.
On Twitter @RMHigh7088