Safety Lessons Learned from the Dick Cheney Shooting Accident

When vicepresident Dick Cheney shot hunting partner Harry Whittington in February, itwas tragic proof of something all hunters know: One thoughtless pull of thetrigger can send a friend to the hospital--or the morgue. Because of Cheney'sstatus, hunting and hunter safety whirled around the national spin cycle for anentire week. Time and Newsweek ran cover stories that tried to explain"what really happened" on that South Texas ranch. Late-night talk showhosts made cutting jokes about Cheney's shooting skills. Bloggers looked forconspiracies. And some of the information out there was plain wrong.

All huntersshould have paid attention, because there was plenty to learn. Here are fourkey lessons:

1. YOU NEED TOHUNT DEFENSIVELY ALL THE TIME.

Although sometried to blame the victim for not announcing himself, the vice president pulledthe trigger on a low bird without knowing what was behind it. Cheney was atfault, period. But if you're the victim, blame isn't the issue. When someoneruns a red light and broadsides your car, it's their fault. But that doesn'tmean you should never look to the side before stepping on the gas. Remember:You're afield with armed people who might screw up--even if one of them is thevice president.

Wear a blazeorange vest and hat when hunting (Whittington did), but don't believe it makesyou invulnerable. Speak up. Let people know where you are and keep track ofyour party as well as other groups.

Wear eyeprotection in the field. Whittington took several pellets to the face. His eyeswere saved by shotproof glasses.

2. LET SOME OFTHEM GO.

Some birds aren'tworth the risk of shooting at them. Cheney whirled around to take a quail thatflushed behind him. To safely shoot a bird behind a line of hunters, you don'tspin and shoot; you point your muzzle straight up in the air so as not to swingit past anyone else. You turn around. With the muzzle up, you look for otherpeople, dogs, and trucks before you point the gun. I've done this safely amillion times, but after the Cheney accident, I may let those birds go.

3. HUNTER-SAFETYCLASSES PAY OFF.

Immediately afterthe shooting, a few of the vice president's defenders downplayed the accidentas a common occurrence. Ranch owner Katharine Armstrong said, "This issomething that happens from time to time. You know, I've been peppered prettywell myself."

The numbers tella different story. Texas, which sells over a million licenses annually,recorded fewer than 30 hunting accidents in 2004. Only five of them involvedquail hunters. Ms. Armstrong might want to start bird hunting with a differentcrowd.

Hunting accidentsare rare because hunters emphasize a culture of safety. We wear orange; takehunter-ed classes (there is no record Cheney ever did); and stress proper gunhandling at all times. The "one beer" the VP drank at lunch wouldn't betolerated in most camps I've been to. Hunting will stay safe so long as weremain hyperaware that anyone can unleash a load of pellets in the wrongdirection.

We can't becomecomplacent. Unlike the vice president, we don't hunt with an ambulance standingby.

4. A LOT OFAMERICANS DON'T UNDERSTAND SHOTGUNS.

The accidentproved that lots of people harbor misconceptions about shotguns. One bloggerwrote that a load of 7½s would deliver a "gentle shove" at 30 yards.Unfortunately, many hunters are equally clueless. After my only close call inthe field, the man who nearly head-shot me at 20 paces asked casually, "DidI pepper you?" Last fall, a hunter-safety instructor told my son's classthat "buckshot will knock a man down but it won't kill him." Now, ifbuckshot will drop a deer, what chance do you think a human really has?

In fact, a loadof No. 7½ pellets--the shot size that Cheney was using--fired at 1300 fps retainsenough energy to break skin at 132 yards. That's one-and-a-third footballfields. At close range, shot doesn't "pepper." It wounds and kills.Everybody got that?