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Monday, May 19, 2008

The saddest hunting story of the year

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA, May 17, 2008.)

A distraught family will never recover
from a sorrow that could have been prevented.

This column may be difficult to read. A few weeks ago a Minnesota hunter made the worst mistake of his life. Thinking he saw a turkey, he shot his little boy.

Some will see this tragedy as a reason to pile on the anti-hunting bandwagon, and blame guns, hunting, and even rural American culture. But several facts have emerged that show this mistake apparently followed a series of other mistakes and choices that compound the sadness and grief of a distraught family that will never recover from a sorrow that could have been prevented.

Here’s the story. A hunter, with his 8-year-old boy accompanying him, saw some turkeys in a field and hoped to call them in for a shot. He told the boy to stay put while he moved around the field.

As the father called to the turkeys, they called back and he believed they were approaching. He heard a sound, and he saw something rise up. Seeing the roundish shape and thinking it was the tail fan of a turkey, he fired the ill-fated shot. It was his son, dressed in camouflage with a hood over his head. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

The mistakes are several. One mistake many will accuse the man of is not a mistake at all, nor is it illegal. It’s natural and normal for parents to take kids along when pursuing their interests. People do it all the time, and hunting is no different in that respect than sledding, fishing, or playing baseball. All are activities where tragedies have happened, yet no one suggests kids shouldn’t enjoy these activities with their parents in appropriate ways.

But the mistakes began before that. First, the dad wasn’t a legally licensed hunter. He had won a lottery entitling him to purchase a turkey permit under the Minnesota system, but failed to make the purchase.

Second, the man was apparently trespassing. The property owner had not given permission for the man to hunt there.

It gets worse. A breath test administered at the scene showed that the man had alcohol in his system. A urine test administered a few hours later confirmed it, and also showed the presence of marijuana. His truck contained several containers of beer, (most of them opened), along with a marijuana pipe. (These matters were not included in the criminal charges.)

Yet, the man made some other basic common-sense errors that led to this tragedy. One was in telling the youngster to stay put. Who can expect an 8-year-old to remain alone when the very reason for the outing is to be with his daddy? The boy should have been within arm’s reach at all times, both for the boy’s safety and so that the two could share the experience.

Another mistake was in shooting at a shape. Every spring turkey hunter knows that identifying your target is basic to the hunt. Before pulling the trigger, the hunter must see the turkey’s beard. Plenty of gobblers are called into shotgun range where the hunter sees a big, round tail fan, and the red, white and blue head of a strutting gobbler. That’s what I saw the other day but I didn’t shoot -- because without seeing a turkey’s beard, you don’t pull the trigger.

Thus far this year we can be thankful Pennsylvania’s spring gobbler season has been unmarked by tragedy. That’s especially good news because the state Game Commission recently removed the regulation requiring turkey hunters to wear fluorescent orange, a regulation that did not prove to reduce turkey hunting accidents.

Like most other sporting activities, turkey hunting is safe. It’s safer when hunters understand that the only blood alcohol content that should be tolerated is zero. It’s safer when hunters always know where their companions are. It’s safer when the hunter positively identifies his target. It’s safer when the hunter obeys all laws and regulations. It’s safer when hunters use common sense. And it’s safer when hunters commit to never taking a risk. No turkey is worth it.


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