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Hunting With a Rat

What happens when the leader of one of Oakland’s most notorious motorcycle clubs tries to convince a squeamish reporter to shoot a wild boar.



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Breathing is another component. Every time you breathe your body moves, which you especially notice when you're aiming at something through a tiny scope and even the slightest movement can mean missing your mark. People have different methods when it comes to breathing and timing a shot, but Latham suggested fully inhaling and exhaling, and then inhaling halfway.

If you take too long to pull the trigger, your arms can get tired and wobbly. So you need to act fast — but you also need to take your time. Did I mention this was stressful?

Finally, you also can't hesitate or feel apprehensive. You have to fully commit to what you're doing. You have to sharpen your focus and really concentrate. And you have to think about what'll happen once you pull the trigger. You can't loosen your grip or lose sight of your target or let the gun jerk when it fires. You have to keep it steady — your mind, your body, and the gun.

When I had the target firmly in my sight and had partially inhaled, I squeezed the trigger. The force, even for a pellet gun, was a bit jarring. Remarkably, I hit close to the bull's eye. After so much effort and concentration for such a seemingly simple task, I felt exhausted, yet also exhilarated. The next shot I loaded myself.

After practicing with the pellet gun at the clubhouse, I had to take the next step toward hunting: getting a hunting license, and that required taking a hunter education class, as mandated by the State of California. The Department of Fish and Wildlife certifies hunter education instructors to teach these classes, which are offered all over the state and are listed on the department's website.

Much to my surprise, most of the upcoming Bay Area classes were full. I finally found an open spot for a class held on a horse ranch in Novato, about 35 miles north of Oakland. It required two three-hour sessions, plus one six-hour class.

The first thing that struck me when I walked into the converted barn/classroom was the kids. There were four of them, all boys — two who looked to be about eleven or twelve, and another two who were about seven. I was expecting to learn about guns and safety, but I wasn't expecting to do so with a bunch of children.

There were also two twentysomething dudes, an older guy, and one of the young boys' thirtysomething father. When the teacher asked how many people in the room had handled guns before, every arm shot up. I was definitely feeling like the odd woman out.

The class was taught by Daniel and Janet Gookin, a married couple. After we signed a legal document stating that we weren't restricted from owning or possessing firearms, ammunition, and/or dangerous weapons, the Gookins began with an overview of what we'd be learning in class, which was mostly about how to safely handle guns. But almost immediately, the discussion turned political.

Janet said we'd be learning "why hunting is important, why we have our Second Amendment, why we need to protect that. So what we're here for is, we want to involve you in the process in keeping some of our liberties and our freedoms."

It was unclear whether this discussion was part of the normal routine or whether it was being said for my benefit — I had informed Daniel I was a reporter when I initially signed up for the class — but if they were trying to present hunters in a positive light to a skeptical audience, they weren't exactly successful.

Janet continued: "There are many organizations out there that are really, that we need to listen to or be able to know about so that when someone comes on and goes, 'oh, the NRA,' and they'll say a bunch of bad stuff, well, you know what, there are some good things that they're doing, too."

Another part of hunter education was making sure everyone in the room understood how hunting is good for the environment. Daniel referred to hunters as "environmentalists" who protect habitats, keep animal populations under control, and "are harvesting a continually renewable resource."

Here's the thing. There are two parts to hunting: One is the killing of animals for food, and the second is the tool used to do it. Seeing as that tool is most often a gun, the class at times felt like a bunch of pro-gun propaganda. Gun safety is also a tricky topic, and one that the instructors danced around several times, because essentially you're talking about how to safely use something that's meant to kill. The topic of safety was often framed in the context of avoiding the kind of accidents that give hunters a bad rap. (Daniel referred to them as "incidents," not "accidents," because, he said, they're preventable.) The instructors also used euphemisms such as "harvest" (meaning to "kill") and "expire" (for "die"). Considering all the gun deaths in this country, it was difficult to separate my dislike for guns from my feelings about hunting.