“We have to stop these tragedies from occurring.” “When will this senseless violence end?” “The government has to take action.” These words are unfortunately all too familiar to Americans as we watch heartbroken family members and friends demand change in what feels like an endless stream of reports about mass gun violence. We listen to the pleas for more accessible mental health care, gun legislation reform, threat identification and assessment programs in schools, bans on bump stocks and high-capacity magazines, an end to mass shooter notoriety, and other solutions. We know that this multipronged problem requires a multipronged approach. So here’s a vital step toward ending this epidemic that we should all be able to agree on:
Stop offering courses that teach children how to use deadly weapons.
Wildlife departments and schools across the country place firearms into the hands of children and encourage them to become skilled users. These minors are considered too young and immature to make responsible, informed decisions about voting, smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, and in many cases, operating a car. But hunting programs for young people apparently deem them wise and competent enough to be taught how to kill.
In many states, children of any age can be taken into the woods and instructed to kill animals—despite the fact that almost none want to do this. Children have a natural empathy for animals and don’t want to see them suffer. But hunting programs aggressively recruit young people to make up for the rapid decline in the number of hunters. Less than 4% of the U.S. population hunts, and 61% of those who do are over age 40. And these programs continue to push children into a violent, bloody pastime even as gun violence skyrockets. Research into recent U.S. mass shootings reveals a sobering connection.
A large number of U.S. mass shooters were exposed to gun violence against animals or other forms of cruelty at an early age. The following is a partial list of mass shooters who had direct ties to hunting and/or animal abuse:
- The sophomore who killed four fellow students at Oxford High School in Michigan was described by a classmate as “really into hunting.” The Intelligencer reported that “in Oxford, kindergartners get BB guns as gifts, and high-schoolers post selfies with their guns and hunting trophies on Instagram.” The media outlet revealed that the shooter had also begun torturing and decapitating baby birds.
- Uvalde, Texas, was characterized in news reports as a “hunting mecca”…“where rifles are a regular prize at school raffles.” After the Robb Elementary School shooting, which claimed the lives of 19 young children and two teachers, one resident bragged to The New York Times that his daughter shot a deer at just 3 years old. An acquaintance said that the Robb Elementary shooter “loved hurting animals.”
- The shooter who killed 10 people and injured 13 others at Santa Fe High School in Texas came from a hunting family. The weapons he used belonged to his father
- Speaking to The New York Times about the student who opened fire at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, claiming nine lives, one neighbor recalled that he was quiet except for one topic: “guns and hunting.”
- The former enrollee at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida whose rampage left 17 people dead enjoyed shooting squirrels and chickens. He also skinned lizards and reportedly killed frogs, tried to maim a neighbor’s potbellied pigs, and tried to crush animals trapped in rabbit holes. His social media accounts were filled with photos of dead animals.
- The 21-year-old recent graduate who murdered eight people and wounded three others at spas in the Atlanta area was an avid hunter. One of his previous kills had been celebrated on the website Backwoods Bowstrings, which posted a photo of him posing with a dead deer.
- The young man who cut short 26 lives at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, lived in a rural area popular with hunters. Neighbors said that they often heard gunshots coming from the property, and the man told a colleague that he had acquired animals from Craigslist to use for target practice. Records show that he had been arrested for cruelty to animals.
- At Marysville Pilchuck High School in Washington, a freshman shot five peers at close range. He was an avid hunter who had posted gruesome photos of the animals he’d killed on his social media accounts.
- A friend of the 15-year-old who killed a student and injured a teacher at Reynolds High School in Oregon before turning the gun on himself told the media that the teen enjoyed hunting rabbits and was very knowledgeable about firearms.
- An 11-year-old Pennsylvania boy shot his father’s pregnant girlfriend with the gun that his father had given him for Christmas—as he was reportedly teaching the child to hunt.
- A Pennsylvania teenager—whose social media page was filled with gory hunting photos—shot and killed his girlfriend’s parents.
- In Arkansas, the 11-year-old student who, together with a friend, pulled a fire alarm at Westside Middle School and shot at people as they fled the building was a hunter. The pair used his grandfather’s hunting guns to commit the crime.
- In northern Kentucky, a 17-year-old murdered his family before taking his gun to Larry A. Ryle High School and holding 22 classmates hostage. He had reportedly watched his father shoot birds and had shot them himself.
- The female shooter who killed a principal and a custodian and injured eight children and a police officer at Grover Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego had hunted birds and abused dogs and cats.
- Nearly all the students involved in mass school shootings had a history of cruelty to animals, including those responsible for the violence at Bethel Regional High School in Alaska, Columbine High School in Colorado, Heath High School in Kentucky, Pearl High School in Mississippi, and Thurston High School in Oregon.
The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child directed member states to ensure that children aren’t exposed to violence against animals. The committee established in its General Comment No. 26 that “children must be protected from all forms of physical and psychological violence and from exposure to violence, such as domestic violence or violence inflicted on animals.” Watching terrified wildlife being gunned down and sliced apart certainly qualifies as violence.
But programs that teach kids to kill continue to operate.
Hunting isn’t necessary. It causes deer populations to increase. Deer reproduce based on the availability of food and habitat, and does can even reabsorb fetuses when resources are scarce. After hunters kill tens of thousands of deer in an area, the resultant spike in available necessities results in increased breeding and more sets of twins. And wildlife management agencies commonly kill off natural predators to ensure that there are plenty of targets for hunters’ bullets and arrows. Humans don’t “conserve” wildlife by killing them—and they don’t teach kids “respect” for animals by telling them to fire away.
Parents, educators, and authorities must take reports of cruelty to animals seriously and handle every instance with the gravitas that it requires. And people must stop desensitizing impressionable children to violence and gore and teaching them how to kill. As long as young people are taught that killing others is often necessary, justifiable, and even worthy of accolades, we can’t be surprised when they pay attention.
Note: PETA supports animal rights, opposes all forms of animal exploitation, and informs the public on these issues. PETA doesn’t directly or indirectly participate or intervene in any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office or any political party. PETA takes no position on gun ownership but does oppose all violence, whether the victims are animals or humans.