Shoot to kill? Nothing sporting about such rules of engagement

Mon, Dec 31, 2012, 00:00

TIPPING POINT: Perusing the shelves in a newsagent’s recently, it dawned that there were a good half-dozen magazines on offer about shooting. And not clay pigeon stuff either. No, staring out from the massed titles were pictures of Springer Spaniels gazing adoringly at their armed owners, tongues lolling stupidly, or jaws clamped firmly around dead birds. And if it wasn’t dogs, it was guns.

Tantalising headlines about what calibre of ammunition best takes down a pigeon mixed with competitions for exotic weekend getaways to Scotland. There were strident opinion pieces about bores. And everything was glossy. Presentationwise, they fitted in perfectly. The headlines could have been about what your rifle really wants – but isn’t telling you; or 10 tips to becoming a better shot; maybe even how to hit that elusive bullseye.

But it was all on the sports shelves, which provokes an obvious question about whether shooting is or is not a sport. Not target shooting – that’s in the Olympics. The competitors get grants. And if golf qualifies as an Olympic sport, then why not potting a piece of plastic? No, I’m talking about battalions of Barbour-bods blasting at birds, deer, foxes, even stuff constituted as vermin. Does that constitute sport?

Clearly, a query about the demarcation of newsagent shelf space isn’t going to keep anyone up nights. But still, it is curious. The magazines have no doubt. Shooting is a field sport, shooting game is a countryside sport. One contributor referred to himself frequently as a sportsman. And I guess if firing a dart at a board qualifies as an athletic pursuit, then it’s hard to quibble about firing a bullet.

Zeitgeist activity

Apparently shooting has become something of a zeitgeist activity in Ireland right now. There are reportedly almost 900 gun clubs in the country with a membership of nearly 23,000.

Apart from that, streams of tourists come to Ireland to join shooting parties at exclusive estates, spending copiously in the process; it’s worth millions. There are parts of the country where the pervasive echo of damp penury is interrupted only by the sound of gunshots.

But if there is one economic success story its propagators like to keep under the radar, it’s shooting. Because if there’s one thing huntin’ and shootin’ types do not like, it is sneery meeja yobbos filling space at their expense. And there is a stereotype about those who hunt animals that’s easy to draw.

It’s just a bit too simple though, a bit like blasting a bullock with a howitzer from two yards away. Anyone prepared to dress up like an 18th century squire and advertise how wannabe they really are by chasing a howling pack of dogs on horseback is really ripping the pee out of themselves before they rip anything else. But with shooting, the dressing up is relatively understated, much less important than equipment.

What counts is bang for your buck.

And there is something about guns that make them catnip for a lot of men. Here too, there’s ample space for diminutive knob jokes, if only to try and dilute the self-absorption of a minority of inadequates with lethal access to weapons, the savage potential of which has been seen all too horrifically recently.

But only the unimaginative can dispute the aesthetic appeal that some weaponry provides: which is all fine if you’re aiming at a plastic target, or a plate whizzing through the air. But you have to wonder at the empathetic deficit among those who get their jollies from killing animals.

The countryside conservation argument is invariably trotted out in response to the right-on brigade. But that’s really a latex-thin justificatory sheath for shooters simply doing what they want to do. And what they want to do is blast at something with an impulsive trajectory.

New converts

It would be fascinating to find out how many of the new converts began their gun fetish on clay-pigeon ranges, only to feel it insufficient for their shooting urges.

Moreover, the numbers feeling that are obviously significant since you can hardly drive round a country bend these days without a fat pheasant struggling to rise high enough above your car.

However, there remains something very different about raising an animal for the food chain and raising one for target practise – no matter how much florid Hemingway-esque prose gets reached for as justification.

Papa always gets dragged into the argument with all that wonderful stuff about blood returning to the earth and the elemental life force. And in fairness he could back up the shaping with his fair share of backbone in a crisis.

But no amount of gorgeous prose can alter the bloody reality of ammunition entering flesh. It’s messy, painful and just plain stark.

None of which is going to persuade anyone in thrall to the primal relish of feeling a shotgun kick against their padded shoulder to hang up their holster and maybe drive the Rangaloid off into the sunset – or at least to the nearest Dart.

But once home, instead of reading up on the latest ammo trends, it might help if they pondered how, for something to be considered a sport, it usually requires both sides to know the rules.

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