Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Experienced hunters yesterday said Vice President Dick Cheney alone bears the blame for a weekend mishap in which he accidentally shot a hunting companion in the face and chest with a shotgun.

Every local hunter interviewed by The Washington Times yesterday said the vice president violated hunting’s cardinal rule: Never pull the trigger unless you are 100 percent sure of your target. And, they said, he violated Rule No. 2, as well: Never swing on game outside the safe zone of fire.

“I just want the guy to say, ‘Hey, I screwed up, I made a mistake,’” said James Harris, 51, a hunter and taxidermist from Mechanicsville, Md., who said he fears that the accident will make people think hunting is unsafe.

“He apparently was overzealous or too excited about the shot, and he didn’t practice safe measures to make sure he didn’t shoot his friend. He should have, and he was wrong,” Mr. Harris said.

Said hunter Bob Rice, 73, of Golden Beach, Md.: “Ninety-nine percent of the blame falls on the person who discharged that round with his trigger finger, and that’s Cheney.”

A Cheney spokesman yesterday said the vice president’s office “had confirmed” every point in a firsthand account of the incident by Katharine Armstrong, who owns the Texas ranch where Mr. Cheney went hunting with Harry Whittington, 78, and one other hunter.

Mr. Whittington “came up from behind the vice president and the other hunter and didn’t signal them or indicate to them or announce himself,” Mrs. Armstrong said after the mishap.

“The vice president didn’t see him,” she said. A covey of quail “flushed and the vice president picked out a bird and was following it and shot. And … Harry was in the line of fire and got peppered pretty good.”

Mrs. Armstrong has downplayed the accident, saying, “This is something that happens from time to time. You know, I’ve been peppered pretty well myself.”

Robert Bealle of Waldorf, Md., 54, who grew up hunting quail, said he has hunted since he was 9 years old and has never known anyone who was hit by birdshot, which are tiny pellets that spread out as they travel away from the barrel of the shotgun.

“I have never sprayed anybody, nor have I ever been sprayed, and if I ever was, I’d never go hunting with that guy again,” he said with a laugh.

Mr. Bealle also questioned why the hunting party would split up. Mrs. Armstrong said in her account that after Mr. Whittington shot a bird, he went to look for it in the tall grass, while Mr. Cheney and a third hunter walked to another spot and found a second covey.

Mr. Bealle said that although hunting methods are different across the country, it is common practice for three hunters, for instance, to walk abreast as they move forward flushing out quail. The left hunter can shoot left or center, the middle one straight only, and the right one center or right only — “never, ever to the left.”

“And they shouldn’t have left a hunter straggling back behind them. They should have got dogs over there, or they should have gone over there to help find the bird. I don’t care if you’re the vice president; go help,” he said. “And then they should have all regrouped; they should have stayed abreast.”

Mr. Cheney’s spokeswoman, Lea Anne McBride, dodged questions about the hunters’ comments.

“The vice president has made his comments on what happened,” she said.

Mr. Cheney has not spoken publicly about the incident since it occurred, except in statements issued by his office.

Of the hunters’ comments, Miss McBride said: “If you’ve got other sources saying other things even though they weren’t present, that’s, you, you certainly …” She left the sentence unfinished.

The Times interviewed five hunters, and all said their opinions on blame would be held by any experienced hunter and had been shared among shooters in recent days.

Two days after the shooting, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department released a report of hunting accidents in 2005. “Swinging on game outside of a safe zone of fire is still the primary accident type” in dove and quail hunting, the report said.

It found that of 30 accidents last year, just two were classified as “victim out of sight of shooter/moved into line of fire.”

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