My local newspaper, the Eugene Register-Guard, published a story by Rebecca Taylor on October 17, 2007 in which a local resident accidentally shot a visitor. As of today, the victim is still alive. The story, however, brings to light an interesting aspect of American rural culture, the concept of the varmint. In our local case, the shooter was described as firing the shot from a "small-caliber Ruger varmint rifle." Now what is a varmint rifle?
Ruger makes solid, mid-priced, good-quality firearms (I have used their pistols) and the rifle in question, though this was not specified in the story, was probably a .22, which fires a fast, small bullet suitable for killing crop-damaging rodents and other very small animals. My mother was a good shot with this kind of rifle while growing up on a farm near Salem, Oregon.
But what is a varmint and why did the shooter fire at "what he thought was an animal" in the brush?
My dictionaries, and such supplemental works as Woods's The Naturalist's Lexicon, make clear that the word varmint is a variant, if you will, of vermin, which in turn is based in the Latin term for worm but is today used more broadly to refer to any kind of loathsome, obnoxious or unpleasant animal, particularly a small animal.
I used to do some consulting work for Leupold & Stevens, an Oregon firm that makes high-quality optical equipment, especially scopes for use on firearms. Some of these are also marketed as great for varmint shooting, mounted on a .22 rifle or long-barrelled pistol, or perhaps a slightly higher caliber. One doesn't usually shoot varmints with large-bore weapons such as .44 revolvers or .45 automatics.
So what is a varmint, really, in daily use in rural America? The term has come to mean just about any small animal under almost any conditions. That is the shame of all who enjoy shooting sports.
I have no quarrel with hunting, having enjoyed from the land of Oregon venison, elk, rabbit, curried bear and even frog legs from frogs caught by my uncle and prepared to perfection by my grandmother. Likewise, it seems to me fine for farmers and ranchers to get rid of ground squirrels that pepper pastures with ankle-breaking holes (though setting up nest platforms for raptors might be more effective).
But our local shootist wasn't out to get dinner. He wasn't trying to keep his land safe and productive. He certainly wasn't protecting himself. He saw something move - something completely unidentified - and he shot it for fun.
From what cultural sump do we get the idea that killing animals purely for pleasure is morally acceptable? The idea is not limited to slow-witted young men out for a joyride on an ATV: hunting big game purely for trophy purposes is perfectly acceptable, even among the wealthy and educated. That is a subject beyond the meaning of "varmint," but is clearly related.
We see young men (mostly) shooting Burrowing Owls off fenceposts simply for target practice. In the case of most birds, unlike most mammals, this is a crime. Even my new neighbor, a nice young man, last year shot (with his varmint rifle) a raccoon in a residential district of Eugene, which was illegal not because it was a raccoon, but because he fired his rifle inside the city. I wonder if he could clean out the neighborhood cats for me?
So we return to our young ATV rider who fired at something unknown that moved in the bushes. The headline on the article referred to the shooter as a "hunter." Wrong. Hunting by definition has seasons and rules, and is limited to certain animals. Our young man, waving his rifle, admits to simply firing at something rustling in the underbrush. Just a varmint, let's shoot it for fun. I wait for the shame. I wait in vain.