Thoughts on hunter safety in the wake of tragedy

Editor's Note: The following article was published at Republished with permission of the author.

As a volunteer hunter education instructor here in Ohio since the mid 1990's, I have closely watched the news surrounding the unresolved shooting of Larry Bradley, 45, of Bidwell on the opening day of this past Ohio's deer gun season, apparently by another deer hunter who has not accepted consequences for his or her actions.

First and foremost, all my thoughts and condolences go out to Larry's family and friends. In many ways his story is like mine; he was in his 40s, a father, and an Iraq veteran with a great love of the outdoors. During my own deployment I missed one entire deer season and returned home during the middle of the following deer gun season. Even though I was woefully acclimated to Ohio weather by that time, I hit the woods the very next day. This incident is troubling by itself, but even though I never met him I can relate to Larry and it troubles me even more for that reason.

As a hunter education instructor it disturbs me that three Ohio hunters were killed during the recent deer gun season – the first deer season fatalities since 2009. One is too many, three is inexcusable.

In hunter education, we emphasize the four primary rules of gun handling: keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction, treat every gun as if it is loaded, always be sure of your target and beyond, and keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot. These rules apply for modern firearms, muzzleloaders and archery.

To elaborate, for an incident to occur the firearm must first be loaded. If the gun is not loaded, it cannot shoot. We treat all firearms, loaded or unloaded, with the respect due a loaded gun, but the fact remains that a gun without ammunition is little more than a club. The gun does not load itself; some human with opposable thumbs intentionally put the shells or cartridges into the firearm.

It must be pointed in an unsafe direction. A firearm that is always pointed in a safe direction, even if it fires, will likely cause little damage. What constitutes a safe direction depends on the firearm and its ammunition; a load of #8 shot fired from a shotgun directly into the air will sprinkle back down to earth like a gentle rain, but a deer slug fired into the air from that same gun will come crashing down with deadly force.

After the gun is loaded and pointed in an unsafe direction, the final step is that someone must pull the trigger, sending the projectile on its way where it is going to hit something. The old saying about "what goes up, must come down" still applies, as does the law of gravity. The idea is for the projectile to strike its target, i.e. the game animal or paper target, with a safe backdrop like the earth directly behind it. Once you pull the trigger it is too late to change your mind; that bullet or slug is going to hit something. It is up to the shooter to control what it hits.

Despite what you may read or see on TV, guns don't load themselves, spin around and shoot people all on their own. Negligent or careless people do this. My point is that hunting incidents are not accidents in the traditional sense; a chain of events must occur before they can take place. The goal of hunter education is to prevent these incidents, not to give advice for how to react when an incident occurs, but if I were asked I would say this:

I am sure that every incident is different, and while there may be something to be said for temporarily removing yourself from a situation where emotions are running high and not adding additional bloodshed or violence to what was apparently a tragic, unintended incident, that can't relieve a person from the responsibility of attempting to render aid or to accept responsibility for his or her actions.

A person's character is measured by how they act when no one is watching them. Doing the right thing is easier when people are watching you, and doing the right thing when no one is watching you may be harder. However, that doesn't excuse you from doing the right thing. Sending an anonymous letter to the sheriff's office does not constitute doing the right thing, it shows you don't want to accept consequences.

Furthermore I believe that somebody other than Larry's shooter knows or suspects who did it, and it falls on those people as well to say something or to share in the guilt. The bottom line is that somebody's husband, somebody's son, somebody's friend came out of the woods that morning, and they were not themselves, and they know it.

For the record, hunting is one of the safest of pastimes. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation hunting with firearms has an injury rate of 0.05 percent, which equates to about 1 injury per 2,000 participants, a safety level bettered only by camping (.01 percent) and billiards (.02 percent). For comparison, golf has an injury rate of 0.16 percent (1 injury per 622 participants), while tackle football topped the list of activities with an injury rate of 5.27 percent (1 injury per 19 participants). The majority of hunting-related injuries, more than three-quarters of them, stem from tree stand injuries, not the use of firearms.

So don't be afraid to go out into the woods, but as hunting season winds down, please stay safe, remember the rules of firearm safety, and stay warm!

Jim Freeman is wildlife specialist for the Meigs Soil and Water Conservation District and a long-time contributor to the Sunday Times-Sentinel. His column "In the Open" generally appears every other Sunday. He can be contacted weekday at 740-992-4282 or at [email protected]

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