McKean Minute: Accidental gun discharges – More common than you think

Last year’s hunting season was deadly in my home state of Montana. Two hunters were wounded when they were accidentally shot in the field; two others were killed.

One of those victims was Mike Drexler, an elk hunter who was shot by his best friend for the worst and most common reason: his friend, Jay Maisano, loaded a live round in the chamber of his rifle as they approached a downed bull elk. Maisano slipped, the gun went off, and Drexler died in the field.

Maisano has spent much of the time since the tragedy talking about the details of that day. He takes full responsibility. But he also makes pains to note that he ordinarily never carried a gun with a round in the chamber. That day was an aberration. What isn’t, he notes, is accidental discharges. Maisano says that many, if not most, people who have responded to his story have disclosed their own stories of accidental discharges in the field.

Most, thankfully, haven’t ended in tragedy, but any accidental gunshot is potentially life-ending, or at least life-altering.

With Maisano’s experience in mind, a room full of Montana Hunter Education instructors last week shared their own incidents of accidental discharges. Over 80 percent recounted some experience with a gun that went off inadvertently at some point over their years as hunters.

That’s a lot of accidental gunfire, especially at the hands of folks who are certified to teach gun safety. Some were guns that went off inadvertently in vehicles. Others were guns that “suddenly” fired in the field. One or two went off when the operator assumed they were unloaded.

The take-away is that all those discharges happened because the gun handler had a loaded cartridge in the chamber long before or after they intended to shoot. In some cases, the safety failed. In others, they didn’t know a round was in the chamber when the trigger was pulled. In all the cases these Hunter Ed instructors recounted, the incident didn’t have more dire consequences because the gun’s muzzle was pointed in a safe direction, away from people (though in some cases, not away from pickup transmissions).

The take-away: Do not carry a gun with a loaded round in the chamber. Load only when you are settled and ready to shoot. Remove it when you move. It’s admittedly more difficult with upland hunting, when you’re at a disadvantage when a rooster or grouse flushes, but carrying a loaded round requires even more vigilance for upland hunters, walking as we do over uneven terrain, watching out for dogs and hunting partners and erratic-flying birds.

But in most cases, when you’re rifle hunting, you have time to cycle a round into the chamber, aim, and pull the trigger. If you’re worried about being slow on the draw, then load a round once you get set in a stand. But walking and moving with a loaded round is flirting with trouble.

This whole conversation has me thinking, and asking. I’ve been quizzing my buddies – have they had an accidental discharge? About half say they have. So, what about you? I’d like to know how common it is in the wider world. Let’s have a conversation about this, one that hopefully ends with some change in behavior. After all, no deer, or elk, or antelope, or rabbit is worth the risk of accidentally shooting yourself, your buddy, a family member. Or a pickup.

The Selflessness of Access

You hear this a lot – that the biggest impediment to hunting and fishing more often is a place to do it. Access is a bottleneck.

But, is it?

Do we have an access problem, in the sense that there’s not enough real estate to go around? Or do we have a problem sharing the access that we’ve worked hard to get and keep?

Those are two pretty different ways of looking at the foundational ingredient of hunting: a place to do it. The situation changes according to region, land ownership, the type of game we’re hunting, and even the season that we’re in the field. But one constant is that we have a hard time sharing our best spots.

See if you recognize yourself in this scenario: You cherish the idea of a fellowship of sportsmen, each of us working on behalf of wildlife and wild places. You love the idea that we’re stronger as a community, whether we’re raising money for wetlands at a Ducks Unlimited banquet or buying hunting licenses to fund biologists and game wardens.

But if you see another duck hunter in your favorite spot on the marsh on opening day, you are not filled with collegiality. You curse them as slob poachers, or ignorant hacks who don’t appreciate the spot nearly as much as you do.

The same goes for your hard-earned lease of prime deer-hunting land. It took you years to find the spot, negotiate with the landowner, and scrape together the funds to pay the lease. Years more to clear ground, plant food plots, and implement your management plan to produce older bucks with heavier racks. You’ll be damned if you’re going to invite a stranger to exploit all your work.

But isn’t that exactly what we should be doing if we want hunting to outlast our own participation in it? Shouldn’t we offer up spots in our duck blind to people just getting started? Shouldn’t we invite beginning hunters to sit over our food plots and reap the benefits we’ve created with years of careful management?

Before you call me a dunder-headed Commie, hear me out. Those beginners are going to go somewhere, we hope. They will probably spend a few years of frustration, squandering otherwise good days looking for access, maybe inadvertently trespassing, or maybe messing up a public-land honey hole because they don’t know better. If they’re really tenacious, they’ll survive those early frustrations and create their own access and traditions and eventually flourish. Don’t believe me? Look at your own trajectory. Turned out okay for you, didn’t it?

Now look at the alternative. Share your access with a beginner. Show them how to properly care for the place and the resource. Get them started with early success. Share the bounty of your own hard-won access. If you do it right, they will start their careers as hunters from a place of confidence. And then they’ll find their own spots. Who knows, maybe they’ll even share them with you. You don’t have to overdo it, or share a limited resource. But if each of us gave a few days and acres of our precious places, then suddenly, America doesn’t have an access problem.