Safety First…

While driving into my real job yesterday, I was listening to the radio (as I am wont to do) and a filler section devoted to listener e-mails came on.  Now normally I tune this out and go about my merry task of driving, but yesterday an e-mail from a hunter was read on air, and it both caught my attention and prompted me to write this post.

The particular e-mailing listener was, as I said, a hunter and they just wanted the station to air a public service announcement from them (or PSA as those slick radio-types call it), presumably on behalf of hunters everywhere.  The gist of the message was that hikers, dog walkers, equestrian enthusiasts, cyclists, and all other members of the non-hunting public should exercise caution this autumn while enjoying recreational activities in the public and privately owned forests of Ontario, since it is hunting season for wild turkeys and deer respectively across a number of WMUs in this province.  It also bemoaned the fact that although deer hunters (specifically those with firearms) are required to wear the aptly named hunter (or, blaze) orange clothing, members of the public (whose safety, based on the message delivered jointly by this e-mail and the radio DJ, is somehow compromised by a hunting season) were not required to wear blaze orange.
Now this is not an attack post, and I am not trolling on the individual (whose name I can’t even recall) or the radio station (whose name I won’t mention).  But I do take issue with the way this was presented, and yes, I am aware that a full tutorial on hunting safety would not hope to fit within the tight, 90 second timeline of this piece of metaphorical radio flotsam (or the confines of this blog post), and yes I do agree in spirit with the aim of the hunter in question…after all public knowledge is better than public ignorance.  However, a rude consequence of this very simplistic, diluted, line of thought as it was presented is this: it basically served to notify a non-hunting public in Ontario (and I use that term with some accuracy since the majority of the population does not hunt) that some hunter believes that there is a very real chance that hunters may potentially shoot recreational users of forests if the public does not take precautions, which is a patently absurd conclusion.
Again since I agree with the spirit of the dialogue, but disagree with the scope of the presentation of it,  I’d like to add the following logical addendum and anecdotes to hopefully clarify some myths about hunter safety for anyone in the public who may stumble across happy little piece of cyberspace.  I know in the Mission Statement I alluded to the point that I wouldn’t be preachy and didactic in this blog, but I do feel (almost obsessively) fierce about safe hunting and gun safety collectively so my apologies in advance if I get to a bit of sermonizing.   It is in my upbringing as a hunter to be radically safe; my father as well as my uncles, all who served as my mentors in hunting were also safety fanatics.  For years my brother, my cousins, and myself were all rebuffed for getting too excited as tag-along youngsters and straying too close for comfort to the man with the gun.  It seems almost as if I spent my first half-decade of hunting with my dad trailing five feet behind him, as he would not tolerate horsing around or running ahead when a gun was involved.  I vividly remember, and have no shame in relating to you dear reader, one such episode when my brother and I followed along with my Dad on a varmint-control mission shooting groundhogs (or more accurately woodchucks) on some land that an adjacent farmer had.  Groundhogs, as you know, can wreak havoc on farmland, pockmarking it with their burrows and inflicting damage on machinery and livestock alike.  After shooting each groundhog, we would march out to ensure that it was in fact dead, and if it was we’d turn it over on its back so that the vultures would come and do the cleanup.  The farmers were grateful for the help in controlling nature’s little miner, and more often than not Dad connected with the high velocity shells fired from his Remington .222.  I recall marching up to one deceased groundhog that had been head shot; it happens and it’s not pretty, but it is one of the organic realities of hunting.  I may have been ten or eleven years old, and all Dad said was (and I’m roughly quoting) “That’s what happens when something gets shot and that’s why you want to be careful around guns and never point one at anything that you don’t intend to kill.”  I was not traumatized or mentally damaged by this; likewise I didn’t have nightmares or think it was cool to see an living thing’s head exploded.  But it did teach a valuable lesson that (obviously) holds true to this day, and that was that a gun is designed to kill, and it does that very well.  So respect them, be extremely careful with them, and don’t play around with them.  We also learned that guns are not for making you feel tough or important, they weren’t toys, and they were for hunting or target use only.
But enough sermonizing (see, I’m sorry) and back to the point of all this.
The first thing that the e-mail and the radio station DJ failed to acknowledge is perhaps the most important point of all.  While it is imminently true that the public should be aware when there are men and women with guns, crossbows, and arrows in the forest, it is the sole and final responsibility of the operator of that firearm to not shoot at anything that they are not 100% sure (literally) is the game animal they wish to harvest.  To paraphrase a current hunting companion, you can’t reel in a bullet…or to put it another way, if you pull the trigger what happens next is all on you.  There should be no logical reason at all for any debate whatsoever on this point.  I contend that without question no hikers, cyclists, etc would ever be shot by any hunter who abides fully by this ethos.  The “adrenalin sometimes gets the best of us” argument is totally invalid, as is the overall premise of mistaken identity.  I suppose if you wanted to reduce this statement to its most absurd common denominator one could argue that a non-hunter clothed entirely like a deer or bear or turkey or whatever else could be hunted may stand a chance of getting shot and the hunter may in this respect be blameless, but only in that ridiculous and highly unlikely case would I be apt to agree with you.  And this is not a case of pride going before a fall, because even hilariously unskilled hunters such as I ought to be able to tell the difference between a deer and a jogger.  Be aware of the target, what’s beyond it, and make sure that you don’t squeeze the trigger if there’s one iota of doubt about what you are shooting at.  Period, full stop.
Secondly, and in the same vein of the above point, I fear some hunters do not truly respect the capabilities of their firearms.  Sure, I’m pretty certain that we all know that guns can kill, after all that’s kind of the point of using one while hunting.  But I think a lot of hunters fall into both relying on their mechanical safety too much and not practicing good muzzle control.  Now this is where I hear all sorts of excuses that I patiently nod in agreement with, but really there’s no excuse.  I turkey hunted a couple of years ago with a guy who, while handing me his weapon over a fence line that we were crossing, actually pointed the business end of his shotgun squarely at my chest from point blank range; when I said something along the lines of “point your barrel to the side or straight up” he snorted and simply replied “It’s not loaded”.  These, by the way, are rumoured to be Terry Kath’s last words.  Coincidentally, I no longer turkey hunt with that individual.  I guess if they read this they’ll know why.  The old refrain of my two most important gun safety commandments, ‘treat every gun as though it were loaded’ and ‘only point a gun at what you intend to shoot’ seem to get constantly trampled under people rushing, being over confident, forgetful, overly excitable, or downright arrogant in the belief that certain guidelines of safety and common sense do not apply to them.  I’ve heard other stories of (and been present for one) terrifying near-misses that while somewhat benign in an “all’s well that ends well” or “no harm, no foul” kind of sense could easily have bypassed that step and taken the fast lane straight to tragic if not for the grace of a few inches.  The point I’m making here is that the concept of a “hunting accident” is at best a palliative euphemism for an injury or death caused by ignorance of rules and the absence of basic common sense.  At worst it is an outright myth.
There are reams of reference material outlining the core values of gun and hunter safety, as well as too many cautionary tales outlining the ways that people meet their untimely end while hunting, but overall hunting is a safe pastime (maybe too safe…if someone died every weekend while hunting, people might take hunting and firearm safety a bit more seriously…but now I’m just being ridiculously cynical).  Complacency, a belief that the individual knows better than the rules, and sometimes just plain old boneheadedness (not a word, I know…but apt) sometimes win the day and these become the stereotypes that we as a group, the overwhelmingly vast majority of whom are safe handlers of weapons, have to battle.
So as we head towards the peak of hunting activity here in Ontario (and by logical extension, the rest of North America) let us all as hunters be safe.  If you’re already a safety fanatic, try to educate those around you about it.  Set a good example and lead by it so that the public learns and sees that hunting is a safe thing to do for every person who could be involved.  Remember, no animal is worth your life or the life of another person, civilian or hunter.  If you’re safe there will always be other days to get out afield.  If you aren’t safe, well, then you can’t be too sure, can you?

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