A father and son were hunting in Fluvanna Co., Va., last week when a deer jumped from the brush. The son swung and shot, missed the deer and hit his father in the head with buckshot, critically wounding him.
Commandment No. 1: Be sure of your target before firing.
An 11-year-old squirrel hunter was walking behind his father in Maryland last year when the boy checked to see if the safety on his .22 was engaged. A bullet discharged, hit the man in the head and killed him.
Commandment No. 2: Always keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction.
In Colorado, a 56-year-old man was driving alone along a back road with a loaded shotgun in the car. He hit a bump, the gun fired and killed him.
Commandment No. 3: Unload all guns when not in use.
It's hunting season again and the horror stories filter in. In Patrick Co., Va., a deer hunter climbs a tree to his deer stand. His loaded gun evidently falls and fires. The bullet hits him in the leg, he falls, breaks his neck and dies.
You hear the stories and wonder. A goose hunter takes his 3-year-old out on Maryland's Eastern Shore. The man leans on the muzzle of his 10-gauge shotgun; the child crawls over and pulls the trigger, blowing off a chunk of his father's shoulder.
A painful pattern begins to form. "I've been reading hunting accident reports for years," said Tom Carpenter, who teaches hunter safety in Maryland, "and I have yet to see one incident that wasn't avoidable by following simple safety precautions."
But they keep happening.
Between Sept. 5 and the end of the first week of deer season last weekend, Virginia hunters had 26 accidents and two fatalities, including one last week in which a Floyd County man was shot dead by another who mistook him for a wild turkey crawling through the bushes.
How can one hunter mistake another for a wild turkey?
"There's no research on that," said Virginia hunter education coordinator Herb Foster, "but my feeling is, there's the rare occasion when a guy makes an honest mistake. His mind's eye says to him, 'That's what I'm after.' He's staring into the brush for some shape and he sees something and is convinced.
"But the other side of that," said Foster, "is there are people out there who shoot at movement and sound."
After the highest number of hunting accidents in its history last year, Virginia this season instituted a blaze-orange law for deer hunters, requiring gunners to wear some high-visibility clothing, as most states already do. Next year, first-time hunters in Virginia also will be required to take a hunter safety course.
Historically, these rules are shown to have an effect on the frequency of accidents. But will they be obeyed? The Floyd County turkey hunter who was shot wasn't wearing blaze orange, Foster said, though he was hunting in deer season and was required to.
And in neighboring Maryland, hunter safety courses for new hunters were mandated nine years ago, but the law there remains largely unenforced.
Hunters seeking a Maryland license these days must declare they either hunted in-state before 1978, when the safety course requirement took effect, or passed a safety course. But proof is rarely required as many licensing agents just check an appropriate box on the license form without asking, state outdoor education director David Street conceded.
Street said the state will crack down on the safety course requirement next year, but even with lax enforcement, he said, Maryland safety records have improved over the years as 5,000-odd gunners a year passed through courses.
With about 150,000 licensed hunters, Maryland now records about 30 hunting accidents a year, including one or two fatalities, he said. In Virginia, with 350,000-odd hunters and no hunter safety course requirement, there were 92 accidents last year, 13 fatalities.
What happens when hunter safety laws are rigorously enforced?
Colorado, with about 300,000 hunters, mandated 10-hour hunter safety courses for all new hunters in 1970 and since then has steadfastly enforced the law. The state at the same time put in a blaze-orange clothing requirement for big-game hunters and a ban on loaded guns in cars.
The result? Hunting accidents dropped dramatically, according to safety director Mike McLain. In 1962, there were 45 accidents, 10 fatalities. Last year Colorado had nine hunting accidents, one fatality.
The most credit, said McLain, goes to hunter education courses. "Young hunters are made aware of the danger they assume when they take a rifle or shotgun out."
You read the accident reports and weep.
In Loudoun County, a loaded shotgun fires as a man removes it from his car, muzzle-first, wounding him in the hand and hip.
In Maryland, a 20-year-old unloads his gun with his hand over the muzzle. It fires and blows his fingers off.
A 62-year-old Maryland quail hunter is shot in the lip and cheek by his hunting partner.
A 68-year-old Coloradan takes his 9-year-old grandson hunting. The boy shoots his grandfather dead.
"The thing is," said Street, "they're all preventable with a little common sense."
Yet a deep reluctance persists among hunters and their lobbyists to submit to proficiency testing and mandatory safety courses, said federal game warden Ralph Plummer, who oversees 20,000 hunters a year on Aberdeen Proving Grounds. "Your National Rifle Association, your bowhunters groups, they hate that with a passion," he said.
You wonder why. It's hunters, in the end, of course, who pay for their colleagues' ignorance.
Firearms safety is not complicated. For those who haven't heard them before, here are the 10 commandments of gun safety.
Be sure of a target before firing.
Keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction.
Unload guns when not in use.
Treat every gun as if it's loaded.
Be sure barrels are clear and ammunition is the correct size.
Never aim at anything you don't intend to shoot.
Never climb a tree or fence or jump a ditch with a loaded gun.
Never shoot a bullet at a flat, hard surface or at water.
Store guns and ammunition separately, out of childrens' reach.
Avoid alcohol when using firearms.