On a Sunday morning a couple years ago, Brooklyn journalist Foster Kamer and a few of his "particularly liberal" blogger friends decided to skip brunch and hit the shooting range instead.
"We said, hey, let's do something ridiculous," he recalled. "Let's go shoot guns."
They chose the nearest site they found, a range that operated out of a basement in midtown Manhattan. "The first thing that happened when we got there was we heard some guy hammering away at a target with what sounded like a cannon. It was just in such tight quarters. It kind of freaked us out."
It didn't keep them away, though.
One 30-minute gun safety lesson and a few bucks later, Kamer and his friends were blasting away at their own targets — the first of many. "Sometimes we go bowling, sometimes we eat together, and sometimes we go shooting," he said. "It's something to do."
The current flare-up in the long political battle over gun laws is coming at a moment when American gun culture is more expansive than ever, having gained a foothold among the type of coastal elites that, just a couple decades ago, would have dismissed the very idea of holding a rifle as obscene and offensive. Hunting and recreational shooting, once viewed by the left as backwater pastimes, have won over a liberal coalition of eco-conscious locavores, hipster hunters, and adventure-seeking New York media elites.
Since that first experience, Kamer has made a handful of trips to a New Jersey shooting range, bringing along a cadre of Twitter-savvy media types — including New York Times columnist David Carr and Reuters social media editor Anthony De Rosa — who post photos of themselves posing with guns and tweet trash talk about each other's shots.
Not long ago, photos like the one of Carr and co. posing with shotguns likely would have scandalized their more righteous liberal peers. In 1994, The New York Times Magazine captured the left's gun taboo at the time with a long, first-person essay by a "hoplophobe" (someone with a morbid fear of weapons) who decides to visit a shooting range. The gun-fearing author, Phillip Weiss, disapprovingly describes the "almost orgasmic" feeling of wielding a shotgun, frets about the weapon's threat to the "social contract," and concludes that guns represent a "crude means of arriving at that feeling" of sovereignty.
These days, Kamer said, his outings to the gun range elicit little more than a shrug and some gentle teasing from even his friends.
"They'll be like, 'Man, you probably haven't done anything remotely athletic or outdoorsy in a long time. And I'm like, 'Hey, I can play a game of pickup basketball too. Get off me,'" Kamer said, reasoning that the hobby had little to do with violence. "I mean, this is actually an Olympic sport."
Of course, not all of Kamer's fellow sharp shooters travel in such open-minded circles. One occasional guest on the skeet shooting trips, James Del, works as the advertising director at Gawker, which recently published 446 pages containing the names of every registered gun owner in New York.
The headline: "Here Is a List of All the Assholes Who Own Guns in New York City."
On a recent evening at Bull's Head Tavern in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, twentysomething revelers balanced IPAs in one hand, and toy firearms — green handled or blaze orange — in the other. Antelope and deer loped across an HD screen, and players took turns drunkenly firing off shots at them. This was Big Buck Hunter, an arcade shooting game that has gained irony-fueled popularity across New York. About 130 bars in the city claim to offer it, and last November one East Village dive bar hosted a Big Buck Hunter world championship.
"It is our big draw," said Bull's Head bartender Jess. "People drive from Jersey to play it."
Stereotypes of the hunter as the backwoods, toothless animal-killer span pop culture, from Elmer Fudd to South Park's Uncle Jimbo — the gun-totin', do-what-I-want wacko who hunts despite laws passed by "the Democrats." He tells Cartman and friends to yell, "It's coming right for us!" before shooting so that even rabbit hunting can be explained in court as a matter of self-defense.
In recent years, the "urban woodsman" trend has been well-documented, with one 2010 Esquire piece referring to the emerging flanel-and-boots hipster aesthetic as the "Field-and-Streamification" of fashion.
But veteran hunters say the the the movement extends beyond Urban Outfitters stocking up on hunting caps. Bill Heavey writes for Field & Stream as well as Garden & Gun, a stylish Southern lifestyle magazine that has attracted a devoted blue-state readership well outside its Charleston, South Carolina, headquarters. He said the rise of the "locavore" food trend — which favors free-range, organic, local meat — has inspired swarms of urban-dwelling foodies to trek out to the wilderness and try killing their own protein.
It's an audience the longtime outdoors writer thinks he can now reach with a new book he's working on.
"In my book, I'm hoping to keep my Field & Stream readers and cross over a little bit into the mainstream for people who are interested in alternatives to the food industry," Heavey said. "People are realizing as they're looking for free-range organic meat that venison fits the bill."
The demographics are changing too. One in ten American hunters now is female, and the average age is skewing younger, said hunting blogger Holly Heyser.
"I've seen a lot of daddies taking their young daughters out hunting," she said. "That's a huge change. A decade ago people wanted to take their sons."
For all the shifts, though, it remains to be seen whether the liberal infatuation with guns can survive the political sea change caused by a series of mass shootings last year. For the first time in decades, gun control advocates believe public opinion is firmly enough on their side that they will be able to defeat powerful lobbyists like the NRA in Congress — or reap the electoral fruits if they don't.
As for Kamer, he said he hasn't picked up a gun since last July, when a masked shooter opened fire on a crowded movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.
"After that, I think the thought just occurred to me, like, you know, there's something that feels a little bit weird about doing this right now," he said. "I just kept thinking, Jesus God, am I propagating this? Is there a way to justify this to myself?"
But Kamer, who spoke to BuzzFeed Wednesday afternoon, minutes after President Barack Obama went on TV and laid out the most aggressive gun control agenda in a generation, said there should be room on the left for both a cultural appreciation for guns, and support for the president's efforts.
"Do I plan to go back again [to the range]? Yeah, yeah, I probably will," he said. "Would I mind my ID being checked and having to sign off on a bunch of forms before I'm handed a rifle and a box of 20 shells? Hell no, I wouldn't mind."
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at email@example.com.
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