Education contributes to decline in firearms accidents

Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle

Texas in 2003 came oh-so-close to seeing the first calendar year unmarred by a hunting-related firearms fatality in the 38 years such records have been maintained.

Except for a single tragic accident in which a 14-year-old unloading a shotgun on his porch after shooting a squirrel in his back yard accidentally discharged the gun, killing his 11-year-old brother, no other hunters died in firearms accidents this past year.

"We were close to zero fatalities," said Steve Hall, branch chief of education and outreach for the Texas Parks and Wildlife."It would have great, of course, to have reached that goal."

Still, Hall and his small staff who oversee the state's hunter education programs, the thousands of volunteer hunter education instructors who annually teach and certify 30,000 students in safe hunting practices and the approximately 1.1 million licensed hunters in Texas have cause for feeling positive about the overall state of hunter safety in Texas.

Over the past four decades, the number of hunting-related firearms accidents have dropped by half and the number of fatalities by much, much more.

In 1966, the first year TPWD's law enforcement division began investigating and maintaining records of hunting-related firearms accidents, game wardens chronicled 81 such accidents. A stunning 28 of them involved fatalities.

Two years later, that number had jumped to 105 accidents with a sobering 37 fatalities.

In 2003, game wardens investigated 42 hunting-related firearms accidents. Only one involved a fatality.

Texas has seen fewer than 10 fatal hunting-related firearms accidents each of the past 12 years.

In 1966, TPWD recorded 12.6 hunting-related firearms accidents per 100,000 hunting licenses sold, and averaged 10.92 accidents per 100,000 for the five-year period 1966-70.

This past year, the accident rate was 3.9 per 100,000 hunting licenses. For the five years 1999-2003, the average accident rate was 4.02, or not much more than a third of what it was a generation before.

Credit for the steady decline in hunting-related firearms accidents involves attributing factors based largely on circumstantial evidence. But there's a lot of such circumstantial evidence, Hall said.

"If you look at the statistics, you can see a correlation between the decline (in fatalities and accidents) and onset of mandatory hunter education," he said.

Today, every state has a mandatory hunter education program. While they have differing effective dates (in Texas, hunters born on or after Sept. 2, 1971 must have taken and passed the course to legally hunt alone), all involve basically similar course work.

Instruction covers much firearms safety as well as wildlife management, conservation, hunter ethics, game laws and other topics. (Information on Texas' hunter education program is available on TPWD's Web site,

Texas began offering voluntary hunter education courses in 1972. Most of the people who took the courses were Texans who needed the certification to legally hunt in states such as Colorado, where anyone born after 1949 must hold a hunter education certificate.

The Texas Legislature passed its mandatory hunter education law in 1987, and it took effect beginning with the 1988 calendar year.

The number of people certified through Texas' hunter education program skyrocketed.

In 1987, Texas' hunter education program certified 8,611 people.

In 1989, that had jumped to 36,708.

Over each of the past 15 years, about 30,000 people have taken and passed Texas' hunter education course. Since Texas began offering hunter education training in 1972, more than 650,000 students have taken the course and received their certification.

Simply taking and passing the hunter education course does not make a person immune to hunting-related firearms accidents, Hall noted.

"There always will be human nature. Some people will make mistakes out of complacency or ignorance," Hall said. "But education -- hunter safety training and education through the media and by hunters to each other -- does work. You can see the results."

Parsing the hunting accident reports to highlight problem areas is part of that education process. Some of the insights from analysis of 2003 hunting accident reports include:

·The stereotype of hunters as dangerous, gun-toting drunks as likely to shoot themselves or someone else as they are to shoot at game "is one of those myths that has no basis in fact," Hall said.

Alcohol was not a factor in any of the 42 firearms-related accidents investigated by TPWD during 2003. It was determined a factor in only one of the 35 accidents in 2002 and one of the 43 accidents in 2001.

·In about one- third (28 percent) of the accidents in 2003, a game law violation also was involved. A high percentage of those violations involved young hunters who were violating the state's mandatory hunter education requirement.

The one fatal accident involved a young person who was required to have hunter education certification before going afield alone, but who did not have that certification.

·Most people involved in hunting accidents had not taken a hunter education course. Only 21 percent of the shooters in hunting accidents during 2003 had taken the course.

·Upland bird hunting accounts for a large portion of the accidental shootings. In 2003, 26 percent of the accidents involved hunting doves and 19 percent involved hunting quail or pheasant.

Only 12 percent of the accidents involved deer hunting.

·The number of accidents involving hunting of feral hogs appears on the increase.

This past year, 17 percent of the recorded accidents occurred while hog hunting. That's up from 6 percent in 2002 and 14 percent in 2001.

The jump might be tied to the increase in feral hogs throughout Texas and their non-game status that allows them to be hunted year-round.

"Plus, a lot of hog hunting takes place in close quarters with hunters using handguns," Hall said. That can get dangerous if hunters don't pay serious attention to safety.

In one 2003 incident, a hog hunter suffered a self-inflicted gunshot wound when the pistol he was carrying discharged as he was crossing a fence.

But in two others, hog hunters mistook other hunters for game. In one instance, a hog hunter afield at night shot a hunting companion who was riding an ATV. The shooter said he mistook the victim for a large hog.

"Sometimes, you just have to wonder what was going through someone's mind," Hall said. "Identifying a target before firing is a basic hunting safety rule."

·Shotguns were involved in 55 percent of the accidents, with rifles accounting for 38 percent, handguns 5 percent and bow-and-arrow, 2 percent.

·The most common accident-causing mistake with a shotgun involved shooting when another person is in the line of fire -- as in swinging and firing at a dove without taking note than someone is downrange in the line of fire.

·Chances are, Texas never will go through a hunting season without a hunting-related firearms accident. The fewest such accidents recorded was 31 in 1996.

But there is a chance Texas can go a whole year without a fatal accident. The state came very close to accomplishing that this past year. And every hunter -- all million-plus in Texas -- should view safety as their primary goal while afield, Hall said.

Shannon Tompkins covers outdoor recreation for the Chronicle. His column appears Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays.


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