There aren't too many passions that transcend the erosions of time, but hunting is one of them. The charge the ritual of pursuit evokes is echoed in the words of hunter safety instructor William B. Leaman. The sensations he first felt tagging along with his father on after-work quail hunts in Silver Spring have changed little in a half-century, though much else has.
The coveys of quail flushed a quarter-mile from his parents' house are gone, as farmland was cut up for housing lots and city life edged in, but Leaman's dedication to the sport remained. He has inherited the family talisman, a Kentucky long rifle used by generations of hunters to put meat on the table, and he has absorbed the lessons of a sport that requires discipline, accountability and a deep respect for the materials and resources at hand. And with less available land and more people in the woods these days, Leaman has taken it upon himself to teach the essentials--beginning with safety--to those who choose to hunt.
"I have carried a firearm in the field since I was 11 years old," said Leaman, who lives in Hyattsville and oversees the hunter safety courses held at the Prince George's County Trap and Skeet Center in Glenn Dale. "I don't have to go out and shoot anything. I [can] never pull the trigger and still enjoy the sport. This is the reason I got into instructing: to pass on the enjoyment to the kids."
Leaman, 56, is one of 700 volunteer instructors who run the estimated 225 hunter safety certification courses offered yearly by the Maryland Natural Resources Police Safety Education Division. Except for those who hunted and bought a license before July 1, 1977, passing the three-day, 10-hour course is required to buy a state hunting license. The program, which started in the mid-1960s and became mandatory 22 years ago, is credited with helping curtail accidents.
"It's made people more aware and more responsible in the woods," said Morris Aguilar, the hunter education coordinator for the state of Maryland and an avid deer pursuer. The deer firearm season begins Nov. 27 (bow season started Sept. 15), and there has been a rush for certifications; Leaman's October course is booked. "Since 1977 the number of accidents has gone down" from 40 in 1976 to 28 last year, including one fatality, Aguilar said.
Increased awareness in the woods begins with a state-standardized curriculum that includes wildlife identification, handling of firearms, game care and hunting laws. There is a 50-question multiple-choice test (you need to score 80 percent or higher) and range exercises that test a potential hunter's decision-making skills. The emphasis is safety, safety and more safety, and although the graduation rate for the course hovers above 90 percent, nothing is guaranteed. Leaman and the group's instructors make a consensus judgment call for borderline candidates: Would I go hunting with this person? Their analysis is final and simple: yes or no. There are no maybes around .20-gauge shotguns.
"This is not a hunting license mill. We take it seriously," Leaman said. Students are not allowed to bring firearms to class. Guns and ammunition are supplied at each gun club or range where class is held, and the teachers keep a close eye on everything. "This is not a gimme situation," Leaman said.
Leaman's course usually runs about 12 hours total, two more than the state minimum. Sally Downing of Gambrills passed his class in August as part of a safety project for the Girl Scout Gold Award (the organization's highest honor), and she said she may join her father when he hunts this fall.
"There was a lot of information. All sorts of different safety rules that you should use . . . [and] a lot of the laws," said Downing, 17. "When you had to do a walk-through [with firearms in the field] . . . that was something that hit home. You didn't realize how important they were until you got out onto the field."
As an estimated 120,000 hunters tracked deer throughout Maryland last year, countless split-second decisions were made on whether to squeeze a trigger or to hold off. That is the moment when Leaman and other instructors hope their teaching kicks in and, potentially, helps save lives. For there is too much to be gained in the woods--there always has been, amid the sounds of hoof rustlings and wing-beats--not to take utmost care.
Questions? Comments? We'd like to hear about it. Get in touch with John Mullen by writing him at The Outsider c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or at firstname.lastname@example.org via e-mail.
With rare exception, unless you've hunted and bought a hunting license before July 1, 1977, you must first earn a Certificate of Competency in Firearms and Hunter Safety to purchase a hunting license in Maryland (special hunts and hunting on federal lands require a safety certificate). Nonresidents need to present a safety certificate from their home state to buy a Maryland hunting license. For course schedules and information about the Maryland Natural Resources Police Safety Education Division's programs, call 410-974-2040. The Web site is www.dnr.state.md.us/