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For several reasons I felt compelled to read Joe Bell’s article, Thoughts on Fair-Chase Bowhunting, http://pope-young.org/comm/article_details.asp?uid=F95B5128-3B16-4239-8FD0-A23EED172325. I aspire to be a student and practitioner of Fair Chase and ethical hunting. I write, lecture and consult on hunting and shooting ethics; and, coincidentally, I am learning to shoot and hunt with a crossbow. Given the article’s title and the prestige of the Pope and Young Club, I figured I could learn something about how bow hunting relates to Fair Chase. I share my thoughts about Mr. Bell’s article and my respectful disagreement with his arguments and conclusions.

I cannot divine Mr. Bell’s mind and soul but I can study the words he actually wrote and what he did not write and then draw conclusions from them. His title includes the phrase Fair Chase, which is a noble concept. I looked forward to seeing how Mr. Bell discussed it. The Pope and Young website has a definition of Fair Chase: http://pope-young.org/fairchase/default.asp . The definition is curious because it defines what Fair Chase is not rather than what it is. Example: “The term “Fair Chase” shall not include the taking of animals under the following conditions:…..” The definition ends with the even more curious and vague rule: “Any other condition considered by the Board of Directors as unacceptable.” Not much guidance there.

Mr. Bell begins his statement with definitions of three of his most important terms: he defines a “bow” and an “archer” and a “bowhunter.” These terms are the foundation for his arguments and conclusions.

 

“To begin with, the Club defines a bow as a hand-held, hand-drawn device, in which you pull the bowstring back using your body's strength. This is where the energy comes from to propel the arrow forward. We believe anyone that uses such a tool is an archer and therefore a bowhunter when pursuing game.”

  

Mr. Bell writes: “This is why the Pope and Young Club does not accept a crossbow as a real archery tool. For this reason, we are against them for use in archery-only hunting seasons.”

On the surface, Mr. Bell gives the appearance of weaving Fair Chase principles and ethics into his arguments.  His motive is obvious: his arguments and conclusions will gain credibility and moral justification if he can successfully draw upon Fair Chase and ethics to support them. However, Mr. Bell does not show why Fair Chase principles or ethics supports his definitions. He just says so.

Mr. Bell writes: “But lines must be drawn, and the "bow" is a great place to make it clear cut. Again, it must be hand held, hand drawn, so your body takes up the power of the bow's force in order to propel the arrow forward.” He doesn’t say why a line must be drawn. He doesn’t explain why, based on ethics and Fair Chase, anyone would care or should care if a line is drawn. He does not provide an explanation based on ethics as to why a line must be drawn. Again, he just says so. 

Mr. Bell’s policy recommendation is limited: “Are we against the person using the crossbow? No, absolutely not. This is foolishness. We are simply against the "tool" for use during archery-designated seasons.”

Does Mr. Bell make a case based on ethics and Fair Chase principles for restricting the crossbow? I don’t think so.

Mr. Bell doesn’t offer evidence or show which Fair Chase principles support his conclusion that it is more ethical to ban crossbow hunting from archery-designated seasons.  Mr. Bell simply says it is so. More specifically, Mr. Bell offers no evidence that the “hand-held” bow is in any way more ethical or more consistent with Fair Chase principles than the crossbow.

No references are made to arrow speed, accuracy, range, power or other variables that might provide an ethical basis for distinguishing crossbows from hand-held ones.  Mr. Bell has a bias against crossbows, which is fine, although he writes that the use of any kind of bow is up to the subjective sense of the individual hunter. But his bias is not supported by facts or ethics or Fair Chase principles.

Mr. Bell writes: “This is why the Pope and Young Club does not accept a crossbow as a real archery tool.” Okay, fine.  He is entitled to his opinion; but he is not entitled to make up or ignore facts or twist the meaning of Fair Chase or ethics to support his opinion. Mr. Bell’s subjective definition of a ‘real archery tool’ has nothing to do with Fair Chase or ethics, and, in fact, he doesn’t try to show that it does.

 

Mr. Bell has a bias against crossbows “Because it severs the line between what is archery and what is not.” It is easy, of course, for Mr. Bell to reach his conclusion because he defined the terms of bow and archer in such a way that no other conclusion is possible. His conclusion is not grounded in ethics but in manipulating definitions.

 

Mr. Bell wants the moral authority gained by saying his arguments are supported by the Fair Chase doctrine but he never shows how any of its principles apply to any of his arguments or definitions. He simply writes Fair Chase as if the words alone stops all debate.  He does not show why or how a vertical bow is consistent with Fair Chase and a crossbow is not. By itself, whether an animal is taken with a hand held bow or with a slice of month-old pizza has nothing to do with Fair Chase.

 

I try to understand and do justice to Bell’s arguments and then write accurately about my understanding. To do otherwise would be unethical, as if I, as a lawyer, misstated to a judge the facts or holding of a legal case. It may well be that, in Mr. Bell’s words, “it’s the practice of Fair Chase and high-ethical standards that keeps all Pope and Young Club members branded as one.” But he doesn’t show how ‘real archers’ advance these goals better than crossbow hunters.

Primitive-Like and Legacy

Another part of Mr. Bell’s bias against crossbows is that they are not ‘primitive-like.’ He writes: “we owe it to them and our sport to protect this legacy, which is to keep the sport primitive-like and as challenging as possible...to keep bowhunting a full-body shooting engagement.”

Several issues leap out. First, ‘primitive-like’ is a suspiciously flexible term that defies precise meaning. Thus, like tofu, you can make ‘primitive-like’ into anything you want. Second, defining the modern compound bow as primitive-like defies reason. Made of space-age materials such as carbon, titanium and specialized steel alloys, deriving great mechanical advantages from pulley systems, boasting luminous sight sticks, range finders and release triggers and machined to stunning tolerances, these bows are marvels of modern technology and precision. They are as primitive as a Porsche.

Third, Mr. Bell’s reference to ‘legacy’ is unhelpful. Legacy is a morally neutral concept. Some legacies are good; some not so terrific. Slavery comes to mind. Mr. Bell limits legacy to one factor: the mechanical action of how a string is drawn. Again, fine, but he fails to show how such a legacy in any manner advances Fair Chase and ethical hunting. Appealing to legacy without explaining why the legacy is virtuous is not a persuasive argument. Moreover, I would bet a substantial sum that the animal cares not a whit how the arrow was released.

When evaluating Mr. Bell’s arguments, another factor deserves attention.  I have volunteered on hunts with many severely disabled persons and persons not disabled but afflicted with upper-body injuries. They cannot draw a compound bow. They might be able to shoot a crossbow. Is Mr. Bell going to look into the eyes, for example, of the fourteen-year old I accompanied on a pronghorn hunt (rifle hunt) last year, a boy with no legs and two withered arms, and lecture to him that he can never be worthy of the title ‘archer’ or ‘bowhunter’? That he can never hunt according to Fair Chase principles because, at best, he can only use a crossbow? I hope not. But if so, the key question is: what benefit is derived from that argument?

Why Are We Dividing Ourselves?

I read and re-read Mr. Bell’s article, and several questions kept haunting me. Why did he write it? What was he trying accomplish that deserved to be accomplished? Why start the equivalent of an Animal House movie cafeteria food fight among hunters using different bow platforms for the trivial goal of eliminating some of them from the archery-designated season?

Hunters of every platform face real problems, problems that threaten every kind of hunting. We live in perilous times. If interest rates creep up, if the welfare state continues to consume the economy like a metastasizing cancer, if the economy contracts a little, the billions of dollars for hunting and conservation raised through Pittman-Robinson taxes will dissipate like smoke from a campfire. When photos appear showing an animal with an arrow through its head or neck, thereby creating the equivalent of Cecil the Elk or Bear or Deer or whatever, the Great White shark of viral social media won’t distinguish how bows were held or how the arrow was drawn. When hunting is ended and the animals are dead from starvation and poaching and so forth, it really won’t matter which bow platform you liked and disliked.

Much of the world has gone insane, and viciously insane, feasting on reptilian predatory opportunism. Turning bowhunters against each other strikes me as self-destructive and void of logic and reason. I’d much prefer we hunters focus on meaningful issues. Let us develop strategies for fighting anti-hunters that buzz drones over the animals and who on social media threaten injury and death to hunters and their families.  

Let us absorb the fact that we are one Supreme Court Justice away from perhaps losing the individual right to own or possess a firearm. “What’s that got to do with me?” some bowhunters might ask. Well, consider that Scotland is now enforcing its Air Weapons and Licensing Act, https://www.nraila.org/articles/20160304/scotland-sets-july-deadline-for-airgun-licensing

requiring registration and permits to possess an airgun. Is there any rational basis to believe this could not happen to bows?

I never met Joe Bell. Pope and Young is an honorable organization. I believe Mr. Bell is passionately dedicated to preserving and advancing bow hunting. But, in this instance, whatever compels him, he allowed passion to dominate reason, and generally nothing good comes from such a dynamic. I conclude Mr. Bell did not make his case.  He did not persuade that the crossbow restrictions are justified by Fair Chase or ethics. We cannot afford to fracture the hunting population, bow hunting included.  The stakes are too high. We need to pull together, not create division, especially when there is no moral or factual reason to divide us. 


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Michael G. Sabbeth is a lawyer in Denver, Colorado. He lectures on ethics and rhetoric. He has written the book "The Good, The Bad and The Difference: How to Talk with Children About Values." & is now working on a book titled "No More Apologizing! Arguments to Defend and Advance Hunting and the Shooting Sports."

Michael Sabbeth

Michael Sabbeth

Michael G. Sabbeth is a lawyer in Denver, Colorado. He lectures on ethics and rhetoric. He has written the book "The Good, The Bad and The Difference: How to Talk with Children About Values." & is now working on a book titled "No More Apologizing! Arguments to Defend and Advance Hunting and the Shooting Sports."

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