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.


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