Wisconsin tragedy raises cultural concerns

The recent shootings of eight Wisconsin hunters (six of which have died) by another hunter — a naturalized US citizen of Hmong heritage — is one of the blackest moments in modern hunting history.

The shooter, Chai Vang of St. Paul, Minn., and the two surviving hunters agree that: Vang was trespassing; he was confronted by some of the landowners; racial slurs were directed at Vang; and Vang systematically killed people who he had initially wounded.

Who shot first remains in question, but clearly Vang went on a terrible rampage. The whole incident casts a dark cloud over all hunters, but especially those in Wisconsin and Minnesota where the largest community of Hmong immigrants in the United States resides.

The U.S. population is 290,809,777. Of this, 75 percent are Caucasian, 12.3 percent are African American, .9 percent American Indian, Aleut and Eskimo, 12.5 percent Hispanic, and 3.6 percent Asian.

Immigrants account for 12 percent of the total population, with the largest numbers in California, Texas, Florida, Illinois, New York and Texas. That rate is increasing each year by about 900,000 legal immigrants and 300,000 illegal immigrants.

Canada has 32,000,000 residents and expects 250,000 new immigrants annually, of which 60 percent are Asian.

Fishing is popular with many immigrants, especially the poor, for whom those fish are a cheap source of protein.

Recently, while I was working on a movie that was shot along the San Francisco waterfront, I got to know an elderly Chinese man. He fished every day, catching an average of five pounds of jack smelt, perch and kingfish.

"It's our fresh meat; all we can afford," he explained.

Unfortunately those species all have public health warnings due to excessive mercury levels. And a major challenge for local health officials has been communicating that to people who speak little English.

Unlike many who immigrate to America and have little or no prior experience with hunting, the Hmong, who come from the mountains of Laos, enjoy a culture etched in hunting.

Traditionally, Hmong people hunt for food in a wild land where game laws, licenses and trespassing are virtually unknown.

Upon settling in Minnesota and Wisconsin, they land smack dab in the middle of a sporting hunting culture defined by well-established laws, ethics and private property.

The Hmong are an exception to the general rule that comparatively few hunters come from minority groups.

According to a 2001 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey, while 6 percent of all Americans hunt, only 1 percent of African Americans, 2 percent of Hispanics and 1 percent of women hunt.

This breaks down as: 13 million total hunters; 1,189,000 female hunters, 428,000 Hispanic hunters, and 288,000 African-American hunters. Only 32,000 Asians bought hunting licenses nationwide in 2001.

Living in California, where 43 percent of our nearly 34 million residents are of Hispanic or Asian ancestry, integration of immigrants into the U.S. sporting culture often unearths cultural differences.

Residents who heard shots recently called game wardens to a park. The wardens staked out a car and waited. At dusk, two Asian men carrying air rifles walked out of the woods. They were carrying a bag containing 54 robins and a hermit thrush. It was "food," they said.

On the other hand, one of the most skillful waterfowl hunters I know is a Mongolian man who hunts in the Sacramento Valley.

He is short, making it easier for him to hide in cattails. His decoys are hand-painted silhouettes on long bamboo stakes. He calls like a champ and is very patient. His hunting prowess makes him consistently more successful than guys with snazzy decoys that sport motorized wings.

Immigration rates are rising. People coming from other cultures represent a challenge for the hunting community. They will either be with you or against you at the ballot box. And if they feel excluded, they will not be supporters.

Federal civil rights laws require that all persons have equal access to programs and activities funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These include nondiscrimination on the basis of race, sex, color, national origin, disability, religion, age and sexual orientation.

There also are two Presidential Executive Orders linked to Title VI: Executive Order 12898, "Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low Income Populations"; and Executive Order 13166, "Improving Access to Services for Persons with Limited English Proficiency."

So long as a person is not an illegal alien or an alien with a nonimmigrant visa and has no other history to make them fail a background check, they can own a firearm.

Chai Vang does have a history of domestic violence, including one incident involving a handgun. But no charges were ever filed, so there would be no prohibition to him owning a gun.

There is no restriction on who can own archery equipment, crossbows or slingshots, all of which are hunting tools.

The only other hurdle to becoming a hunter is passing a hunter-education course, which is mandatory in all 50 states. Some states, however, have a grandfather clause that allows people born before a certain date to be excluded from the hunter-education certification process.

Chai Vang was born before Jan. 1,1973, so he did not have to pass a hunter-education course.

I'm not saying that if he had been required to take the course this would not have happened, but I do believe that we should require all hunters, regardless of age, to take the course. That would at least make sure that everyone understands game laws and private property rights.

California, Wisconsin, Texas, Minnesota, New Mexico and Arizona all offer hunter-education classes and materials in foreign languages. Wisconsin and Minnesota also have Hmong game wardens and special outdoor sports radio programs in Hmong. That's definitely a step in the right direction.

The conventional hunter-education class is 10 to 12 hours long. It may include live-fire training, but this is not mandatory. A person must pass the final written test. In addition, an instructor has the option to fail someone who appears to be reckless or irresponsible.

It's doubtful that Vang would have failed the class. He is a naturalized U.S. citizen who served in the military and received an honorable discharge.

Since hunter education has been required for all new hunters, accidents have gone down progressively and dramatically, making hunting one of the safest of all popular sports. Could it do more?

Personally, I think the introductory hunter-education class should be longer, a lot longer, more akin to what is required in Scandinavia, where such classes take place over several months and passing the final test includes demonstrating shooting proficiency.

I'd also support several levels of hunter-ed classes, graduation from which would result in additional hunting privileges. We already have bowhunter education, which is required in some states over and above the standard hunter-ed course.

Hunting has the potential to be the most deadly of sports, because all participants are armed.

Instead, hunting is among the safest of sports because laws and ethics are stressed. Hunter-education classes not only teach wildlife conservation, safety and wildlife law, they integrate people into the cultural ethic of hunting.

Building a strong ethical culture of hunting ensures the future of hunting.

And that means educating immigrants from all over the world about the U.S. hunting community and its appropriateness in a modern age, as well as providing the option for immigrants to become part of our great outdoor tradition.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click here to purchase a copy.

To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.