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Volume 14, Issue 8 ~ February 23 - March 1, 2006

Burton on the Bay

By Bill Burton

Omission, Commission or Accident?

Interpreting the vice president’s shot

The most fundamental lesson … one that must be continually emphasized, is that accidents can happen.

No, those words were not written by our veep Dick Cheney, who — had he been carrying out his duties as a freshman congressman from Wyoming — surely read them back in 1980. They are from a more heady report than one involving a bob white quail hunting mishap in Texas — though they’re appropriate for both.

Those words are from the report of a Congressional Subcommittee following the Three Mile Island nuclear accident near Harrisburg, Pa.

I’m quite sure the vice president would prefer that his constituents look upon his recent accidental shooting of hunting companion Harry Whittington more in that light than in the light of poet Marianne Moore who wrote “Omissions are not accidents.”

The latest edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary tells us the definition of accident is an “unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally, typically resulting in accident or injury.”

Chaney’s Omission

I’m no fan of Dick Cheney, who radiates the compassion and charm of a rhinoceros with an impacted wisdom tooth. The veep’s public image is cold, even brutal: the kind of a guy who’d spend a Sunday afternoon driving his grandmother through downtown Baghdad in a Hummer.

But as a lifelong hunter, methinks he’s getting a bum rap in just about all aspects of press, talk show, blogger and other media coverage of the mishap at a ranch in the Longhorn State.

The only thing Cheney hasn’t been accused of is intentionally shooting the 78-year-old Austin lawyer — though some blogger or a scandal sheet will undoubtedly rise to that occasion.

In fact, his only omission was that when he pulled the trigger of his light 28-gauge double shotgun as birds flushed, he didn’t know where Harry Whittington was.

The Order of the Hunt

Perhaps a word picture of the actual shooting part of a traditional quail hunt is in order. Done right, a quail shoot is not a mish-mash of hunters, guides and dogs roaming about looking for birds to shoot. The typical shoot is much more organized, and, with rare exception, safe.

If you know your birds, you know that in a quail hunt one doesn’t meander about looking for quail on the wing to take a pot shot at. Quail are usually in coveys (bunches of a few to a dozen or more) secreted within cover, which can be tall grasses, bushes, thickets, anything to conceal them.

With most hunts, dogs — handled by a guide or one of the hunters — locate the birds and go on point, alerting the party to the presence of a covey or a single bird. The birds hold tight, hoping they have not been discovered. Sometimes they try to sneak away afoot. Then the birds are flushed by dog or man.

The hunter knows flushed quail can go in any direction, often all at once, though sometimes a few continue to hold tight. Often one hunter moves in ready to shoot birds once they’re airborne.

Not only can birds head off any which way. In a noisy blastoff, the dog is often between the hunter and the birds. Dogs might even jump into the line of fire as the birds flush.

The hunter designated to take the shot is stationed closest to the covey. For safety, the others should be behind. That’s so that when hunter swings the shotgun as the birds rise and veer off, other hunters are not in the line of fire. If everyone in the party knows where everyone else is (including the dogs, guides and birds) all goes well.

It is the designated shooter who bears responsibility. It’s his finger on the trigger. As the birds are about to be flushed, he sizes up the surroundings, knowing where everyone is, thus which directions are safe to shoot. Once the birds fly, instinct takes over: The shotgun comes to the shoulder, the barrel is aimed at a single bird — not just at a flock.

While swinging the gun with the bird, the hunter must keep his eyes glued on the bird if he is to score. He has already studied his options and knows the other hunters will remain out of the line of fire. The others also know they must stay back. This is not their shot.

The Inevitable

Firearms accidents in hunting are rare, less than 1,000 a year in our country. More hunters are injured in falls from tree stands than from bullets and pellets. But accidents are inevitable. And in bird hunting, situations like this are inevitable.

Nearly 50 years ago, longtime Maryland comptroller Louis Goldstein was in my pheasant- and quail-shooting party in Western Maryland when he was shot in a similar blameless incident. Neither our party nor the other was aware of each other. We were on opposite sides of a rise in the field.

The other party flushed a pheasant, and a hunter took a shot at it — just as Goldstein, who was hiking a few yards ahead of me, popped over the rise and into the line of fire, suffering superficial pellet wounds.

I have witnessed one other mishap in 70 years afield. That time, I was hunting in Garrett County with the late Desmond Walker of Calvert County, a commissioner in the old Game & Inland Fish Commission.

A ruffed grouse was flushed and for some unknown reason, Desmond’s dog leaped into the line of fire. I’ll never forget Desmond, tears in his eyes, cradling his mortally wounded hunting companion.

The Vice President’s Commission

Cheney is an experienced hunter. As such, he knows that the bottom line in enjoyment and safety in a quail hunt: Know your birds, know the guns, know the dogs, and know not only your companions, but also where they are at all times.

He didn’t know Whittington had come on the scene until too late. He had no way of knowing Whittington could be in the line of fire; the victim was last seen looking for two birds he had shot earlier.

The vice president wasn’t about to run away, the proper authorities were notified, the investigation ran its course.

But one thing sticks in my craw. Once this story broke, reports were published of a previous Cheney pheasant hunt on a pay-as-you-shoot hunting preserve in Pennsylvania in which 500 birds were released and 417 farm-raised birds killed, 70 by the veep alone.

If asked (and I never will be) to accompany him on a hunt, I’d decline. Not because I fear for my safety but because I couldn’t stomach witnessing one man shooting 70 pen-reared birds in a single day. He’s a game hog. Enough said.

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