Monday, November 29, 2004

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If a foreigner landed in a typical American rural town on a November weekend, she would quickly conclude that the national pastime is not baseball or football but deer hunting. Lifelong urbanites may have trouble grasping how many hunters tramp into the woods each year in hope of bringing home some venison. Most city dwellers, in fact, rarely think of hunting at all — until a gruesome incident in the news confirms their worst nightmares about guns.

The killing of six hunters in northwest Wisconsin last week certainly fell into that category. It was a shocking and, from all appearances, senseless explosion of violence that is bound to cast a bad light on all hunters.

From the conflicting statements by the accused killer and a surviving victim, you might conclude that a bunch of tiny-brained yahoos with an excess of testosterone got into a stupid argument that quickly overheated and led, predictably, to gunplay. Among Americans who dislike hunting, the thought has no doubt occurred: Is it so surprising that armed men with killing on their minds would sometimes end up killing each other?

But if there is anything striking about the episode, it is not how predictable it was but how unusual. The episode came as a shock because hunters so rarely shoot people — much less shoot them intentionally.

Conflicts about trespassing are part of hunting, particularly in areas where private land is widely intermixed with public land. But normally they are resolved in a calm, civil fashion. Sometimes, they require the involvement of law enforcement. It’s almost unheard of — actually, until last week, it was entirely unheard of — for such confrontations to end in violence.

The most conspicuous fact about hunting in America is how safe it is. There are more than 15 million licensed hunters in this country, all armed with weapons that can easily kill a duck, a rabbit, a deer or a human being. All it takes is a split-second misjudgment or lapse of concentration to produce a lasting tragedy. But such tragedies are very much the exception.

In 2000, there were only 776 accidental deaths involving firearms, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control. In 2001, the number was 800. Gary Kleck, a firearms scholar at Florida State University, says accidents account for only about 3 percent of firearms-related deaths. By his estimate, only 16 percent of these accidents involve hunters — or about 128 deaths in 2001. In other words, in a typical year, one out of 117,000 hunters accidentally kills someone with a gun.

The fact that we occasionally hear how a hunter gunned down someone he mistook for a deer or a turkey doesn’t mean it’s very common. Just the opposite: Dog-bites-man is not news; man-bites-dog is news. There are 39 homicides a day in this country. The “normal” ones don’t get much attention.

How dangerous is it to go hunting in the woods? Noting the volume of armed citizens out there and the scarcity of accidents, John Lott of the American Enterprise Institute says dryly, “It’s hard to think of a safer place to be.”

The infrequency of hunting-related fatalities is not the result of dumb luck. It stems from several things. One is that hunters, who are keenly aware of the damage that can be done with a gun, are very careful. One is that almost all of them are law-abiding.

Another is that they have learned the basics of hunting etiquette and know how to handle disputes in a peaceable manner. The presence of guns has a tendency to promote politeness. When hunters come across other hunters, the “in your face” approach is not usually the preferred one.

But advocates of sensible gun control can also point to the value of sound laws. Most states now require hunters born after a certain year to complete a hunter safety course before they can obtain a license. In Illinois, it’s mandatory for anyone born after 1979. In Wisconsin, it applies to anyone born after 1972.

The same policy applies even in Southern states that are traditionally averse to gun regulation. Texas, for example, mandates safety training for hunters born after Sept. 1, 1971. These requirements, says Kleck, may account for some of the decline in total accidental gun deaths in recent years.

It may be hard for many non-hunters to picture a place where guns are commonly owned and frequently used that is also very safe. But in this country, those places are all around us, every hunting season.

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