So far, John Lockwood has had only two customers for his new Internet-based business, yet lawmakers in California, 14 other states and Congress are moving to shut it down.
Lockwood operates a website -- live-shot.com -- that for a few hundred dollars lets anyone with access to a computer shoot and kill a variety of animals roaming a fenced ranch in Texas.
A rifle, video camera and computer are mounted on a stand at the ranch at a spot frequented by deer, antelope and sheep. From thousands of miles away, via computer, a person can control the camera and gun, firing with a click of the mouse.
Even if Lockwood doesn’t yet have customers lining up around the block, the mere notion that a venue exists for remote-controlled killing has triggered a backlash of disgust, compelling lawmakers and forging an unlikely coalition of big-game hunters and animal rights activists.
Lockwood’s venture has offended sensibilities even in Texas, where many private hunting ranches promise clients they can bag exotic trophy animals such as impala and wildebeest.
“It’s not hunting,” said Kirby L. Brown, executive vice president of the Texas Wildlife Assn., which represents landowners, hunters and conservationists. “It falls off of the end of the ethical chart.”
Scholars such as Dale Jamieson, a professor of environmental studies and philosophy at New York University, also see Lockwood’s business as an understandable, if disturbing, extension of a computer society where popular video games such as “Grand Theft Auto” let players pretend to kill police officers.
Jamieson said people feel threatened by Lockwood’s business, much as they do violent video games, because both involve an unseemly delight in killing. Lockwood’s business, he said, undermines the central argument in defense of hunting: that the joy of the sport comes in the chase and in being attuned to the natural world, but not in the kill itself.
“If you look at this as being kind of a continuum or slippery slope,” said Jamieson, “you have people who enjoy the act of killing and destruction in video games, you have people who enjoy killing animals over the Internet.... But of course the next step in this is that people start killing people over the Internet. That’s the worry.”
In February, state Sen. Debra Bowen (D-Marina del Rey) introduced SB 1028 to forbid Californians to use Lockwood’s website or starting a similar business. The bill faces a vote in the full Senate today.
Bowen said she shares a concern about where Internet hunting might lead. “What happens if this technology gets expanded to other uses?” she said. “It’s actually pretty scary.
“What’s the line between real life and a video game? It has all the video game feel: It’s remote, it’s disconnected from the reality of it, the hunter doesn’t have to deal with any blood or wounding or tracking.”
In Congress on Tuesday, Rep. Thomas M. Davis (R-Va.) introduced a bill to make Internet hunting punishable by up to five years in prison. Lawmakers in Texas, Maine and other states have also introduced bills, some that would require hunters to be in physical control of their weapons, others that make it illegal to kill a bird or animal by remote control or via an Internet connection. Virginia has already imposed such a law.
Lockwood, 40, a body shop estimator in San Antonio whose website also offers target shooting, stands alone in the face of the backlash. He has no outspoken supporter, but he is ever willing to defend his business.
“I think they have a misconception about what it is,” Lockwood said. “They think it’s a slaughterhouse. They think I’m going to decimate the animal population. It’s unethical because all I’m trying to do is kill things.”
But Lockwood said the animals on the 300-acre ranch, which is owned by a friend and located 30 miles northwest of San Antonio, are essentially wild and easily spooked. The only difference between an Internet customer and one who visits the ranch to hunt, Lockwood said, is that the electronic customers can’t walk the land and their view is limited to a narrow camera viewfinder.
Lockwood or one of his employees is always at the camera during a “hunt” to control the rifle safety and make sure a shot is clean and that nothing is in the way.
“Hunting is different for everybody,” he said. “And everybody has their own idea of what they think is ethical.”
The idea was born last year when Lockwood showed a friend a video he took while hunting. The friend mused that there must be a way to hook up a gun to a camera. Lockwood said he was also inspired by www.fantasyhunt.com, where people “hunt” by clicking a mouse to take photos with a network of cameras set up in places frequented by wildlife.
Lockwood argued that legislators haven’t taken the time to understand how his business can help disabled people or soldiers stationed overseas enjoy the thrill of hunting. He said he has received inquiries from soldiers in Iraq and Spain, including one who said he was less interested in hunting than in getting meat to his family.
“Most people would prefer to be out there,” said Lockwood. “But I do get many, many e-mails from those who can’t. Why deny those people that opportunity?”
Lockwood features blackbuck antelope from India, fallow deer from Europe, Barbary sheep from Africa and a variety of other sheep, as well as wild hogs and native Texas white-tail deer, in season. But he is also willing, he said, to import any animal a hunter is interested in bagging. Meat processing and taxidermy services are also available for an extra charge.
In Lockwood’s first Internet hunt in January, recorded by a German television crew, one of his friends shot a wild hog while sitting at a computer 45 miles away. Lockwood, at the ranch, killed the boar with two more shots.
In the second hunt, last weekend, Dale Hagberg of Ligonier, Ind., got three clear shots at a fallow deer over two days of hunting. He came away empty-handed.
An avid hunter before he was paralyzed below the neck in a diving accident 17 years ago, Hagberg had sought a blackbuck, but it never showed -- perhaps sensing that Lockwood and several news reporters stood in the blind near the rifle.
Each time Hagberg had a clear shot at a fallow deer, the deer moved before Hagberg could use his tongue and mouth to manipulate the joystick that activated the trigger.
“It was disappointing that he didn’t get a shot, but the excitement was there for him to get so, so close,” Lockwood said.
Hagberg, he said, plans to buy a faster computer and hunt again.
Lockwood points to the failure of Hagberg’s hunt as proof that it is truly a “hunt,” complete with hours of idle waiting for prey and ample opportunity for it to escape.
“It’s not about killing something,” he said. “It’s about experiencing the thrill of the hunt, the boredom, everything that goes with it.”
But Michael Markarian, executive vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, called it “pay-per-view slaughter.”
“This is a dangerous concept,” he said, “because people may treat this like a video game, and it’s reality for the animals that are gunned down and slaughtered.”
Though Republicans in other parts of the country have sponsored and voted for bills to ban Internet hunting, GOP lawmakers in California have so far opposed it. The Senate Natural Resources & Water Committee passed Bowen’s bill April 5 on a 7-4 vote, with all four Republicans voting against it.
One of those Republicans, Sen. Sam Aanestad of Grass Valley, is troubled that Bowen’s bill goes beyond banning Internet hunting in California to ban residents from paying to hunt with Lockwood, said spokesman Bill Bird.
Aanestad “has a problem with any legislation that restricts customers from doing business with a legitimate company,” Bird said.
Even if lawmakers bring an end to his Internet hunting venture, Lockwood said his online target-hunting business -- $14.95 for a 30-day membership plus $5.95 for 10 shots -- will survive, he said.
“The part that saddens me the most,” Lockwood said, “is they want to ban something that they’re not interested in finding the truth about.”