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Safe hunting is no accident

Published November 28, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - Standing in line at Starbucks last week, I overheard a couple of patrons discussing the shooting deaths of six hunters in the woods of Wisconsin.

It would take too long to repeat their conversation, but suffice it to say, both agreed it was another example of why hunting is an anachronism that should be outlawed in modern society.

I held my tongue, paid for my coffee and returned to the office to do a little research.

Before I get on my soap box, in an effort at full disclosure: I believe that when it comes to God-given rights, hunting ranks right up there with free speech and religion. I think Teddy Roosevelt was our greatest president and that it is a good idea to teach children how to shoot at an early age.

But I also think that the only people who should have assault weapons are the police and military, and before somebody can buy a gun, the person should at least have to prove a modicum of sanity.

Now back to Wisconsin.

The shootings, in our rage-filled society, could have as easily taken place in a parking lot.

On a whole, hunting is a relatively safe sport. I'll go out on a limb and say it probably is safer than fishing.

There was a time, however, when you took your life in your hands hunting on Florida's public lands. Twenty years ago, there were close to 300,000 hunters in the state. During the 1984-85 hunting season, there were 43 accidents, 10 of which resulted in fatalities.

In 1992, the state adopted mandatory education for young hunters. Within a few years, the number of accidents and fatalities began to drop.

In 1996-97, there were 32 accidents and six deaths. The next year, there were 18 accidents and just one fatality.

Since then, the number of hunting accidents has hovered around 10 a year, with one or no fatalities.

Asked to what the trend could be attributed, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesman Henry Cabbage said: "I guess you could say that we did something right when it came to hunter education."

Growing up, I was lucky to have a father who taught me about guns at an early age. He started me off with an air gun, and when I proved I was ready, he bought me a single-shot, Remington .22-caliber rifle.

My dad took me to the range, showed me how to shoot safely and clean my firearm. He kept the rifle locked in his closet and only let me take it out to show my friends under adult supervision.

During hunting season, we often went to our family's cabin on 72 acres near the Delaware Water Gap in the woods of upstate New Jersey. We often had poachers and from time to time would find evidence of their misdeeds.

I remember one Sunday morning we came across the carcass of a large buck in a ditch, minus its head.

"I don't know why anybody would shoot an animal just for the thrill of the kill," my father said.

"I guess they wanted the head for a trophy," I said.

We cut our hike short and went back to the cabin, where my father began working on a delicious venison stew, one of his many culinary specialties.

Years later, I recalled that lesson during the chapter on hunting ethics when I sat through a state hunter education course.

Today, there are approximately 226,000 hunters in the state of Florida. The majority are responsible, ethical, law-abiding citizens who are doing a public service by keeping the deer herd at healthy numbers.

Some of you may have a different opinion.

That is the great thing about America. We are free to speak our minds even if others disagree. We are free to worship the god of our choosing.

And each fall, when the north wind blows, we are free to hunt.

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