But Steel never lets us forget that the purpose of the outing is, in his mind, deadly serious.
“This is sedition,” he explains, gesturing to the shells and rockets strewn around the cacti. “It’s armed resistance to the federal government.”
No one argues with him, but it’s a bit of a stretch. There are no government drones buzzing in Deer Trail, population 548, at least not that we can see or hit with our shotguns. None are expected in the future. For Steel, that’s beside the point. In July, he presented the Deer Trail Board of Trustees with a citizen’s initiative calling for a special election to vote on an ordinance that would allow the town to sell drone-hunting licenses. The idea for the ordinance, Steel says, came in the wake of the Edward Snowden saga and its revelations about widespread domestic spying by the National Security Agency, but also because the Federal Aviation Administration is currently drafting guidelines for opening all of the navigable U.S. airspace to commercial drone flights. What’s important for Steel and his supporters is to make a stand, to send a message that, in this tiny little corner of America at least, the citizens aren’t going to tolerate a surveillance state in which cops, corporations and private individuals can fly unmanned vehicles over your yard and across your property gathering data.
But there’s another motivation that’s equally American: to make a buck. If you want to defend liberty in Deer Trail by monitoring the skies with your shotgun by your side, it will cost $25 for the license to blow a drone down to the cold, hard earth. That’s in part why some residents have embraced the idea even if they think Steel is “a little out there,” as one of his supporters puts it. Deer Trail’s annual budget is a mere $118,000, just enough “to pay the two employees, pay the bills, and that’s it,” in the words of one town trustee. As of September, when Kim Oldfield, the town clerk, stopped counting the checks that had prematurely started coming in from around world in response to Steel’s proposal, they totaled $19,000. As she sees it, the cash alone is reason enough to support Steel’s idea.
Not everyone agrees, of course. The proposal has deeply divided the town, with opponents calling it an embarrassment. Some have politicized the proposal in an attempt to seize control of the board when several trustees who support it come up for re-election in April. One resident filed a lawsuit to block a vote. The town has already had to postpone the drone-ordinance vote twice, most recently one scheduled for Dec. 10, while the suit drags through the courts.