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Virginia’s gun culture derives from rural traditions

Donivan Cunningham practicing with an at-home target set up
Michael Cunningham
Both Donivan and his father, Michael Cunningham, are avid hunters.

Revenue from hunting and fishing licenses generates millions of dollars for conservation efforts statewide.

Seventeen-year-old Donivan Cunningham is considering a career in aerospace engineering. Now in his junior year at Isle of Wight County’s Smithfield High School, Donivan spends a lot of time on the golf course — both at the local country club and school, where he plays on the varsity team.

“I’ve been playing golf since I was 2 years old,” he said. “I’m also in Beta Club, the National Beta Club at my school, and I’ve been an A/B honor student my entire elementary and high school career.”

Donivan sings in his school choir and in the church choir, too. Since his voice changed, he’s been moved up to the men’s chorus — where he sings alongside his father.

Michael Cunningham is active in the community: He’s a trustee and part of the church security ministry at their church, Emmanuel Baptist. He serves on the county school board and regularly joins members of his fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, to distribute food at the local food pantry.

And both Donivan and Michael Cunningham are avid hunters.

“I had over 31 years in the military, but I started as an E1, a private in the Marine Corps and retired from the U.S. Army as a lieutenant colonel,” Mike said. “While in the military, even as an officer, I ran ranges. Rifle ranges and handgun ranges. So, I’ve been around firearms all my life.”

The elder Cunningham is a self-described firearms enthusiast and collector. One of his favorite pastimes is enjoyed by more than a quarter-million Virginians and an estimated 16 million people nationwide.

“My great grandfather — that's my mother’s mother’s father — got me into hunting. My first firearm was a little .22 rifle, single-action,” Michael Cunningham said. “My grandfather had it in his closet with a sock on it. It was kind of funny. He said, ‘Here son. I’m going to teach you the safe way to hunt and respect for wildlife, also.’”

The respect for wildlife and emphasis on safety carried over into Michael Cunningham’s adult life. He and Donivan are careful about what they hunt and only bag what they will eat or share with others. Mentioning the rate of construction and neighborhood development throughout Virginia, Michael Cunningham says habitats for deer and other wildlife have been shrinking for a long time — and that if no animals were harvested, more animals would suffer and perhaps starve.

Donivan Cunningham sitting with a rifle across his lap
Michael Cunningham
Donivan Cunningham

In full camouflage and with blaze orange hats, father and son take advantage of a school holiday to hunt rabbits and squirrels. Sitting at the base of a tree in a Surry County hunting preserve, the Cunninghams have shotguns poised on their laps. They listen for the slightest noise and watch closely for signs of small game.

Some days, the Cunninghams hunt deer — other days, it’s duck. Interspersed with the stillness of the woods is their easy conversation and occasional laughter as they share memories, talk through problems, make plans.

Donivan sees a squirrel moving on a high branch, and his father reminds him to take his time and to use the safety skills he’s rehearsed many times.

Michael Cunningham is aware that accidents can happen. The certified Combat Lifesaver and experienced range instructor places a premium on safety and first aid, so he continues learning: NRA firearms instructor (rifles and handguns), “Refuse to Be a Victim” instructor, CPR, AED and more.

“When we were in the military,” he said, “they always said, ‘Before we teach you how to take a life, we’re going to teach you how to save a life.’”

That focus on safety is also apparent in Donivan’s training. Michael Cunningham recalled a compliment his son received after taking a hunter safety course years ago.

“The instructor, who was a what we used to call a game warden — and now they're conservation police officers — he complimented Donivan for the great job he did,” he said. “Since I sat through the class myself, I took the test again — so I’ve been through the course twice.

“But I won’t hunt with anyone who’s not ethical and safe, and I won’t let my son do it either. And he knows how to handle firearms safely.”

The hunting tradition

“Tradition” is a word spoken often when Michael Cunningham talks about hunting. That’s also true for Bill Macilwaine, a retired Charlottesville ophthalmologist, bird hunter and trail guide.

On a recent trip, Macilwaine was out at the George Washington National Forest in Augusta County. He’s mostly an upland hunter: quail, grouse, woodcock and the like. Macilwaine also loves pointing dogs, aka bird dogs or gundogs, to help him flush out game. Though he’s had many dogs, he’s currently got three — two English pointers and a setter — and finds that “spending time in the woods with them is what’s so special about hunting upland birds.”

“I have wonderful memories of time spent with my father in the woods. He was a very busy medical practitioner, so we didn’t get out very often,” Macilwaine said. “But I can remember as a boy carrying the little gun, the .410 gun that he had as a young man, and he gave that to me. And I have had my sons use that, and hopefully, down the road, my grandsons may get a chance to do that.”

When asked if hunting is integral to life for many Virginians, Macilwaine answers quickly.

“Certainly, for rural folks, for sure. Almost every rural household has a rifle and a shotgun, at least. And if you drive through the woods out here in this rural area, you see hunters all the time. It’s a part of their lives," Macilwaine said. “Their children grow up learning how to handle a gun safely, how to respect a firearm and how to use it in the woods. So it’s a big part of rural America, for sure.”

MacIlwaine in safety orange with one of his pointing dogs
VPM News Focal Point
Bill Mcilwaine finds that “spending time in the woods with [his pointer dogs] is what’s so special about hunting upland birds.”

Revenue from hunting and fishing licenses generates millions of dollars for conservation efforts statewide. In fact, apart from an uptick in hunting during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of registered hunters has been steadily declining for several decades. And conservation agencies have expressed concern about how the dwindling numbers hinder their ability to protect wildlife.

For Macilwaine, it’s important that the public understand the good that he and other hunters provide by paying fees, culling herds and donating additional funds. Doing that helps keep land healthy and available for everyone to enjoy.

“There are lots of positive things that hunters do. They support all sorts of conservation groups — Quail Unlimited, the Rough Grouse Society, the Wildlife Foundation of Virginia, Ducks Unlimited,” he said. “It improves more than just the species that they’re hunting. It improves it for songbirds, all sorts of other wildlife, and it keeps the forest young and active and regenerative. And that helps bikers, hikers, campers and fishermen as well.”

Macilwaine is aware of the death and devastation caused by people using firearms in Virginia and beyond. He says it’s crucial to have laws to keep guns out of the hands of individuals who aren’t able to handle them responsibly — and to generally commit resources to improving people’s mental health. But that “huge problem that we have to figure out” is very separate from what hunting means to him.

“But I think the hunting tradition is different, and I think if youngsters are raised to respect the firearm, understand what it’s for, learn and are taught how to use it safely, it’s still a great tradition,” he said. “And I think that, in my mind, those are two separate things.”

He also says it’s legitimate and “reasonable” to question which types of firearms, accessories and ammunition should be in wide circulation, particularly high-capacity magazines.

But Macilwaine notes that it’s a “slippery slope” for many gun owners and advocates: “I think we really need to put a lot into background checks and making sure people are mentally healthy and being careful who owns a firearm.”

Walking through the George Washington National Forest with his hunting dogs, Macilwaine is appreciative in his reflection. “We are so lucky in Virginia, so fortunate, to have massive tracts of hunting land,” he said. “It’s very special, having the opportunity to hunt here, and I hope the tradition can continue.”

As a hunter, collector and enthusiast, Michael Cunningham is somber on the topic of mass shootings. He says there is no connection between what he does and the harm that others choose to inflict on society.

“It’s completely different, because there is something wrong with someone who can just walk into a church, a theater, a school and just start shooting. And I don’t have the answers, but I can’t relate to that person, because I cannot see going anywhere and hurting anyone," Cunningham said. "But I believe in Second Amendment rights, so I don’t believe that the answer is to take the firearms away from everybody.”

Neither is Michael Cunningham ready to agree that assault-style firearms or high-capacity magazines should be off-limits. To him, there are so many of these guns already in circulation that it would not be feasible to call them all back.

Furthermore, Cunningham says anyone with the intention of doing harm can simply modify what’s available to make it more lethal. He’d prefer that true sportsmen aren’t deprived by efforts that he believes might not actually curb crime.

A younger Michael Cunningham wearing Army fatigues stands next to a camel crossing sign in Kuwait
Michael Cunningham
An undated photo of retired Army Lt. Col. Michael Cunningham serving in Kuwait.

Firearms as a hobby

When Michael Cunningham speaks about his enjoyment of firearms as a hobbyist, he becomes visibly passionate — as a car collector might when speaking about a powerful new engine or a gaming enthusiast when talking about unlocking new levels or gear.

“What interests me when I go to the range, and I’ve got a target 100 yards out, and I can place a bullet within an inch of each from 100 yards — and when we were in the Marine Corps, we used to shoot M16s out to 500 meters and we were hitting targets that were pretty small. Nowadays people use scopes and red dots. We were just using iron sights. It’s just amazing to take a rifle and to be able to shoot that far and hit the target,” Michael Cunningham said.

For him, the hobby extends beyond the guns to the ammunition, too: “I take the brass from whatever I’ve shot, take it home, clean it, resize it and reload it myself and then take it to the range."

According to Michael Cunningham, it’s “even more interesting” to use science and math to follow an ammo-making recipe, reload shots and then take it back out to the range — and strike a target using your own homemade ammunition.

“Measuring how much powder, measuring the weight of the bullet, knowing the depth of the bullet you have to put in the casing,” he said, “it just intrigues me.”

He’s not exactly sure how to answer the question of fixing gun violence. He’s adamant, though, that it has to include people who love firearms in order to effectively work — gun owners who understand the positive aspects of hunting, and of gun culture.

“I don’t have any assault weapons. I have firearms. They’re tools,” Michael Cunningham said. “An assault weapon can be a baseball bat … a hammer … a vehicle, when people go out drunk and run through a crowd and just hurt people like that. It’s hard for me to relate to what’s going on, and I don’t have an answer on how to fix it.”

Cunningham and Macilwaine share the belief that emphasizing gun-related sports can actually help to solve all types of gun-related violence. Both say that the opportunity for bonding and firearms safety education can be benefits of families hunting and shooting together. Macilwaine even called it “valuable” time parents can spend teaching their teenagers how to respect a firearm, properly use one, and how to be an ethical and safe hunter.

“Any time spent one on one with a teenager by a parent, I think, is special,” said Macilwaine. ”It’s one-on-one time. It’s showing a youngster that you trust them, that you’re giving them a level of responsibility, and I think things like that could go a long way with respect to developing a healthy attitude about guns and a safe attitude.”

Michael Cunningham, who grew up in Hopewell, recalls when high school students could legally keep firearms on school property — locked in their trucks so they could go hunting right after dismissal.

“Opening day of deer season, yes, you could bring a note saying you were going to be out or you had been out because of deer hunting,” he said. “And the schools just said, ‘OK, that’s an excused absence.’”

He is making an effort to pass that enjoyment on to Donivan — and possibly to Donivan’s future children.

“Families would go out camping together, hunting together, say on a Saturday ... shoot cans, just do fun things together,” he said. “Instead of the way it is now.”

Watch VPM News Focal Point weekly, starting Feb. 23, on VPM PBS or the PBS app.

Additional notes and resources

In 2020, Virginia began tightening its gun laws and is currently rated a 49 out of 100 for the strength of its laws, according to the gun violence prevention organization Everytown USA. In most cases, gun violence is commensurate with the strength of a state’s laws. This is not always true, as Everytown USA notes that Virginia, for example, has recorded less gun violence than Delaware, which has more stringent laws.

Still, research shows that on average, a person with a firearm in the home is more likely to be a victim of gun violence than a person with no firearm in the home. Following passage of more restrictive laws in 2020 and 2021, gun sales across Virginia saw a spike. They have since fallen off.

Virginia’s Department of Wildlife Resources encourages hunting to aid its mission of managing the state’s forests and other natural habitats. And organizations like Hunters for the Hungry work collaboratively with hunters to process and provide game as food for individuals in need.

Gun violence protection, recovery resources

Virginia Center for Public Safety

American Academy of Pediatrics, Virginia Chapter

Everytown Support Fund

Angie Miles, Host/Producer, anchors and hosts VPM News Focal Point and special broadcasts.
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