By Robert Samuelsen

Pale and shaking, he stood there holding the “stop” sign at the beginning of the road construction site on this remote section of highway. As I stopped, the flagman approached me to show me a bullet hole in his sign, shot by the vehicle’s passenger immediately before me. The shooter had stuck his head and rifle out the window and a taken pot shot at the traffic control sign as he drove by. This poor flagman was mortified at the shooter’s audacity but fortunately no one was hurt. I have no idea why the gun owner thought it was a good idea to shoot at the flagman’s sign (perhaps influenced by Budweiser) but the common adage “to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” seems to apply to guns too. If you carry a gun, everything looks like a target.

Sign shooting is not an isolated event. In fact, in my wanderings, I’ve observed that most signs in remote areas are riddled with bullet holes. It seems that some gun owners feel it is their obligation to reduce the wind load of signs by using them as target practice. The damage costs taxpayers millions of dollars a year in sign replacement and reputes a bad image on all gun owners. Furthermore, without regard to the backdrop, a missed shot by a powerful rifle (e.g. .30-06) can travel more than three miles (17,000 feet), far beyond the vision of the shooter. A missed shot might end up in a campground, school yard, or shopping mall. Just two years ago, a stray bullet shattered the front door of my building and lodged itself in the wall next to my office door. Fortunately, the office was closed that day!
In an infamous 2013 spree, a California sniper shot more than 100 rounds into 17 PG&E transformers costing ratepayers $15 million. In 2020, similar electric infrastructure damage was reported at I-10 and Houghton right here in our own community. While some incidents get attention, this type of criminal vandalism is rampant across the nation so much so, utility vendors now sell ballistic protected products. This is a multi-million cost borne by all of us.

In the Reddington Pass area, over 100 target shooting sites have been closed in recent years, not for shooting per se – shooting is generally legal on BLM land – but for littering! I have found innumerable televisions, furniture, cars, bottles, and cans at shooting sites left by irresponsible target shooters. The US Forest Service determines the popularity of an unofficial shooting range by the amount of trash left behind ultimately leading to a remediation project. After cleaning up the trash, shell casings, and lead, these sites are closed off for natural rehabilitation. Meanwhile, the shooting public move on to obliterate another site.

Even more bizarre, a Sahuarita gender reveal party started a gun-related fire. In 2017, an off-duty US Border Patrol agent shot a high-powered rifle at a target packed with an explosive as part of a gender reveal, igniting the Sawmill fire that grew to nearly 47,000 acres and caused more than $8 million in damage. He pleaded guilty in 2018 to a misdemeanor and was sentenced to five years’ probation and ordered to pay almost $8.2 million in restitution. It was a boy!

Besides the penetrating projectile, lead poisoning also kills. According to the American Bird Sanctuary, an estimated 16 million wild birds are poisoned every year by the principal component of bullets or fishing weights – lead. Lead is typically ingested through carrion. Scientists believe up to 95% of raptors have some degree of lead poisoning threatening their species to the edge of extinction. Lead can also leach into water systems to be ingested by humans and animals alike.

I had backpacked into a remote lake high in the Unita Mountains and set up my tent in a small meadow next to the water. It was late fall with cool days and cold nights. The aspen leaves were golden, and snow frosted the surrounding peaks. As soon as the morning light pierced the darkness, I was rudely awakened by the sounds of World War III all around me almost as if I was in the middle of a coordinated attack. Buried in the warmth of my down sleeping bag, I dressed quickly, and exited my tent only to find the lake had frozen over night and a light snow was falling. Visibility was diminished and I couldn’t see anyone, but the persistent shooting reminded me of “The Hunting Song” by musical humorist Tom Lehrer – “you just stand there looking cute and when something moves, you shoot!” It was in that moment, I decided it would be in my best interest to leave ASAP! As it turns out, it was the first day of hunting season which is not a good day to be backpacking in the wilderness.

We hear about the occasional, but all too often, active shooters, but irresponsible gun usage is omnipresent. Signage, infrastructure, and fire damage caused by shooters merits dialogue. For those of us who wander yonder, it is pervasive, destructive, and criminal. And, in some cases deadly!

Rob Samuelsen is an executive and adventurer supported by his long-suffering but supportive wife!

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