Sunday, November 6, 2005

OAKLAND, Md. — John Wagner was 5 when he killed his first deer with one shot from a .223-caliber rifle last December.

Standing in the living room of his family’s Garrett County home, John recalls with mounting excitement how he trained the cross hairs on the 75-pound doe as she paused beneath a tree stand where he and his father were stationed.

“I shot it right behind the front shoulder,” the boy said. “Dropped it right in its tracks.”

John, now 6, stands about 4 feet tall and weighs about 50 pounds. He’s a good student, earning a monthly award for responsibility in kindergarten last year at Broadford Elementary.

But he’d rather be hunting.

“I like it,” he said. “Shooting a gun and shooting at the animals and killing them.”

When an 8-year-old girl made headlines last month by bagging the first black bear of the season, many Marylanders were surprised to learn the state has no minimum age limit for hunting. But for some families in rural areas such as Garrett County, learning to handle firearms is as much a part of childhood as losing one’s baby teeth.

Hunting opponents aim to change that.

The Humane Society of the United States is talking with state legislators about establishing a minimum hunting age of perhaps 16, said Heidi Prescott, the society’s senior vice president of campaigns.

“A deer rifle can kill someone up to a mile away, and young adolescents lack the experience, judgment and emotional maturity to handle that kind of firepower safely,” she said. “To send someone into the woods with a long-range weapon who’s not even mature enough to drive a car is an invitation to tragedy.”

State wildlife managers disagree. Paul Peditto, director of the Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife and Heritage Service, said children of any age who have passed the state’s tests for firearm competency and hunter safety — a requirement for all new hunters since 1977 — should be allowed to hunt.

The safety exam can be given orally, as in John’s case. Practically, “you’re probably talking about the exceptional 5-year-old and the average 8-to-10-year-old” as being capable of passing the course, Mr. Peditto said.

He acknowledged that some people are alarmed by the idea of small children with loaded guns, “but invariably they’re people who don’t hunt, don’t have any intention to hunt and have never participated in a hunter-safety course.”

That doesn’t describe Miss Prescott. She said she’s taken the Maryland hunter-safety course and found it fairly easy.

The 10- to-14-hour course includes a 50-question multiple-choice exam and a live firing test that she said doesn’t approximate the stress of hunting.

“You’re not under duress when you’re shooting the firearms; you’re shooting at models with an instructor standing over you. You’re not shooting at moving targets.”

Maryland’s hunter-safety requirement places it among 13 states with youth-hunter policies that the National Shooting Sports Foundation and the National Wild Turkey Federation consider “somewhat restrictive.”

A 2004 report commissioned by the groups lists 17 states with less-restrictive regulations and 20 with policies that are considered more restrictive because they ban most hunting before age 12.

The study found that hunters 6 to 15, when accompanied by an adult, have a better safety record than hunters overall.

It reported that in 2002, there were 1.6 shooting incidents for every 1 million supervised youth hunters, compared with 52 incidents per million hunters of all ages.

A shooting incident was defined as an instance in which a person was wounded or killed by a shot from a firearm or a bow. The report didn’t include an incident rate for unsupervised youth hunters.

Maryland has no adult supervision requirement for junior hunters, defined by the state as those younger than 16. Mr. Peditto said that, in practice, junior hunters usually are accompanied by adults because the youngsters can’t drive to the hunting grounds. Junior hunters also may hunt on family land, where regulators are reluctant to intervene. For example, Marylanders don’t need a license to hunt on their own land.

John was on his family’s land when he shot his deer and when he hunted wild turkey without success last spring. He was accompanied on both hunts by his father, Jody, 34, a contractor.

“He’s never more than 5 feet away from me with the gun, ever,” Mr. Wagner said. “I’m always sitting right square behind him whenever he shoots.”

John’s mother, Liz, said either she or her husband will accompany their son on all his hunts until at least his 13th birthday, “and that’s if he shows us, from now until 13, that he’s responsible.”

She said some parents in the area think John’s too small for hunting and don’t like him talking to their children about it.

“I say, ‘Well, he is fully supervised and he’s not out by himself,’” she said. “I think it’s good for kids to learn this. It teaches them how to be responsible at an early age.”

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