The Maine Department of Inland Fish and Wildlife (MDIF&W) has every reason to crow about Maine’s modern-day hunting safety record. Oh, there have been some hunting accidents during the past decade, but in a majority of the cases, they were self-inflicted gun wounds that happened as a result of careless or irresponsible gun handling. Cases of mistaken identity — of hunters shooting other hunters — have become, thankfully, a rare thing during our November firearms season. This, of course, is attributable to the hunter orange law, mandatory hunter safety courses, and better hunter awareness while afield.

Hunting safety, however, is a lot like driving safety: all of us who hunt — like those of us who operate motor vehicles — must guard against complacency. No matter how much we know about safe gun handling, it is still what we do with the firearm in the woods that counts. Accidents don’t just happen, not really. As the saying goes, guns don’t shoot people; people shoot people. Experienced, seasoned hunters, who should know better accidentally shoot themselves and others.

Integral to all of this, too, are the state rules and regulations that dictate who can and who can’t carry that high-powered hunting rifle in the Maine woods during November. Maine hunting safety trends have shown, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Maine did a wise thing when it required new hunters to take a certified hunter safety course before taking to the woods for the first time. Maine’s hunter safety courses are well-organized, well executed, and effective. Credit goes to MDIF&W personnel and its dedicated volunteer staff from all over Maine.

Nevertheless, some of us are beginning to wonder if perhaps our Augusta policymakers, including SAM and the state legislature, haven’t themselves been lulled into complacency by our impressive hunting safety statistics. I have never been comfortable with the idea that, in Maine, a licensed junior hunter can obtain a license to carry a firearm without having first taken a certified hunter safety course. Yes, I know. That youngster must always be in eye-shot of a qualified supervising adult. And, or course, there is a compelling “heritage” argument. We want to encourage youngsters to discover recreational hunting, not discourage them by putting up roadblocks like a mandatory course in hunter safety.

For me, as a father of young boys (at one time) and a hunting safety instructor, not one but two trips through a hunter safety course for them was my parental requirement. That’s right, before my sons carried a junior hunting license and a deer rifle with me in the deer woods, they had to first qualify in the classroom.

A while back, when I read about this year’s new Apprentice Hunter’s License, I wondered if there wasn’t a slippery-slope safety aspect to this well-intentioned option, which was the brainchild of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine (SAM). According to the 2009 hunting law book, this license is available one time to first time hunters. “A person holding this license may not hunt other than in the presence of a supervising person at least 18 years of age who has held a valid Maine hunting license for the prior 5 consecutive years.”

Very similar to the ground rules for a junior hunter. Why not try it, right?

Well, we tried it this fall and a 35-year-old Sidney woman shot herself in the right foot with buckshot. This is from MDIF&W’s press release:

“Stacey Badillo, 35, who is experiencing her first year of hunting using an apprentice license, was hunting with her boyfriend, James Decker, 39, of Sidney and three other hunters at approximately 1 p.m. offRoute 27 in a wooded area south of Summer Haven Road when the incident occurred. Ms. Badillo told Game Warden Steve Allarie that she was resting the barrel of her 20-gauge shotgun, which was loaded with buckshot, on her boot while standing still. She stated that she remembered placing the barrel on her foot, but did not recall if her hand or fingers touched the trigger. The gun went off instantly and the shot went directly through her boot and exited her right foot into the ground. Warden Allarie said he recovered most of the buckshot from about three to four inches into the ground.”

When it comes to hunting safety, especially when it involves high-powered deer rifles, isn’t it best to play it safe and err on the side of caution? Let’s face it, if the woman had seriously injured herself or another hunter, a state legislator would already be preparing remedial legislation when it comes to this hunter apprentice program.

To be fair, I suppose that you can argue that one incident like this does not a crisis make. After all, as noted above, veteran hunters have made the same mistakes that the unfortunate Sidney woman made. One thing is for sure, though. Her short and ill-fated apprenticeship probably is not going to whet her appetite for recreational hunting.

The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal and has written his first book, A Maine Deer Hunter’s Logbook. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” heard Sundays at 7 p. m, on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WQVM 101.3) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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