There’s no sugarcoating it.
Every time a hunter dies in the woods, by his own hand or that of another, it’s a tragedy. Some family is forever changed.
That’s the case in Michigan this year.
According to a story in the Detroit Free Press, earlier this month 38-year-old Justin Buetel was hunting on private land when he was killed by a round fired by a 45-year-old hunter. The men weren’t hunting together, and, in fact, didn’t know one another, said Michigan Department of Natural Resources officials.
“The preliminary investigation looks like it was an unfortunate accident and one hunter mistook another hunter for a deer,” Lt. James Gorno, a district law supervisor with the Department, told the newspaper. “We are still processing evidence and processing the scene, but are not ruling out anything else.”
Gorno added, though, hunting remains “one of the safest sports you can participate in,” and one hunter shooting and killing another is “very odd, very, very rare.”
Statistics all around the country back that up.
Take Pennsylvania, for example. The state’s Game Commission investigates accidents, termed “hunting-related shooting incidents,” and has annually since 1915.
No numbers for the ongoing 2018 seasons are available. But in 2017 there were just 24 accidents, none of them fatal.
Both numbers are reflective of the recent trend.
Accident totals have been declining for decades. The commission recorded 181 in 1982, for example, 100 in 1992, 68 in 2002 and 33 in 2012.
As for fatalities, the Game Commission recorded at least one every year except for three, and all have come in the last seven years: 2012, ’16 and ’17.
It’s not just Pennsylvania, either.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there were 11.5 million hunters in America alone in 2016.
Yet, says the International Hunter Education Association, fewer than 1,000 people are shot by hunters across the United States and Canada in any given year, and fewer than 75 die.
That’s a big change from how things used to be.
The New York Department of Environmental Conservation recorded 19 hunting accidents last year, just one of them fatal.
Since 2010, the agency said, the state averaged 23 hunting accidents a year. That compares to 38 annually in the first decade of the 2000s, 66 in the 1990s, 85 in the 1980s, 102 in the 1970s and 166 in the 1960s.
Indeed, increasingly, it’s more dangerous to go on the water than it is to enter the woods in hunting season.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources, for example, recorded three fatal hunting accidents in 2014. It didn’t see another until 2017.
By comparison, 13 people died in boating accidents in Ohio in 2015. There were another 12 boating fatalities in 2016, 20 in 2017 and, as of Oct. 12, already 16 in 2018.
The truth is, falls from tree stands injure more hunters than shooting incidents these days.
A lot of credit for hunting’s increasingly good safety record goes to hunter education training, wildlife officials across states say. It was instituted starting in the 1940s.
“Fast forward to today … and you find that hunting incident rates are at their lowest in the history of documenting outdoor injuries/fatalities,” the Hunter Education Association said.
“Compared to other sports, hunting is not only safe, it is getting safer … and we can thank hunters themselves for financing and demanding a high standard from each other as we participate in our ‘American way of life.’ We can also thank the 60,000 hunter safety education instructors, many whom volunteer to serve, for passing on safe, responsible, knowledgeable and involved actions by shooters and hunters and for passing on the heritage of hunting.”
Even one accident is one too many, though.
“However, we cannot become complacent as every hunting-related shooting incident is preventable,” reads information from New York’s wildlife agency.
Indeed, perhaps surprisingly, many accidents occur under what seem favorable hunting conditions.
In Pennsylvania, for example, 16 of the 24 accidents seen in 2017 occurred in daylight, rather than at dawn or dusk. Fifteen were in “light” versus “dense” cover.
Offenders and victims tended to be experienced, too. The average victim had 10 years of experience as a hunter, while the most common shooter was either was either between ages 21 and 50 (10 cases) or older than 50 (10 cases). Most had been hunting the species they were after that day for more than 10 years, too.
Commandments of firearms safety
With deer seasons in full swing in most places — and with deer and other big game seasons accounting for more accidents than any others — it pays to remember a few rules of firearms safety.
Here are 10 commandments of firearms safety from hunter-ed.com, which coordinates online hunter education courses for most state wildlife agencies. The first four are the primary rules of firearms safety, be it on the range or in the woods. The six that follow are additional points to keep in mind.
Rules of firearms safety
• Watch that muzzle. Keep it pointed in a safe direction at all times.
• Treat every firearm with the respect due a loaded gun. It might be loaded, even if you think it isn’t.
• Be sure of the target and what is in front of it and beyond it.Know the identifying features of the game you hunt. Make sure you have an adequate backstop—don’t shoot at a flat, hard surface or water.
• Keep your finger outside the trigger guard until ready to shoot. This is the best way to prevent an accidental discharge.
• Check your barrel and ammunition. Make sure the barrel and action are clear of obstructions, and carry only the proper ammunition for your firearm.
• Unload firearms when not in use. Leave actions open, and carry firearms in cases and unloaded to and from the shooting area.
• Point a firearm only at something you intend to shoot. Avoid all horseplay with a gun.
• Don’t run, jump, or climb with a loaded firearm. Unload a firearm before you climb a fence or tree, or jump a ditch. Pull a firearm toward you by the butt, not the muzzle.
• Store firearms and ammunition separately and safely. Store each in secured locations beyond the reach of children and careless adults.
• Avoid alcoholic beverages before and during shooting. Also avoid mind- or behavior-altering medicines or drugs.