Many hunting accidents can be prevented with focus, firearms safety and a few simple precautions
Falls are the leading cause of injury to hunters, but a focus on basic firearms safety and taking simple precautions can help avert injuries and accidents too.
WORTHINGTON — Hunting accidents like the Oct. 19 incident that left a 23-year-old Worthington man with a wounded shoulder do happen, but tree stand accidents are actually the leading cause of injury to hunters.
That’s worth noting for the deer hunters awaiting the start of firearm season on Saturday.
“People that hunt have very, very few accidents,” said Scott Rall, president of Nobles County Pheasants Forever, who has also been a youth firearms safety instructor for 25 years. “As a recreational pastime, hunting is actually a very safe activity.”
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The Minnesota DNR tracks hunting incidents and fatalities, recording 11 hunting incidents in 2020 and 12 in 2019, and 0 fatalities both years. That was for years during which 883,323 and 841,063 hunting licenses were sold, respectively. Hunting fatalities in Minnesota have ranged from 0 to 5 a year since 1990, when 420,023 licenses were sold.
“The number one hunting accident — which everyone thinks (would be) gun-related, which it is not — is people falling when they’re either climbing up or climbing down from tree stands,” Rall said.
Hunters who use tree stands should use body harnesses, which have a safety strap that clips to a hook on the tree to prevent falls to the ground, Rall said. People using tree stands should also use a haul line to pull up their gear, such as an unloaded gun or bow, rather than trying to carry it up or putting it on their back.
The DNR also recommended following the Three Point Rule — always maintaining three points of contact with the steps or ladder before moving, whether it’s two arms and a leg or two legs and an arm.
In order to get a hunting license in Minnesota, anyone born after Dec. 31, 1979 must have DNR Firearms Safety Certification, which generally involves completing an online course and virtual field day or a firearms safety classroom course. Apprentice hunter validation can also be purchased under some circumstances, which would allow hunting under supervision of a licensed adult hunter.
According to the Minnesota DNR, more than 1.3 million students have gotten their firearms safety certification since 1955, and there has been a corresponding decrease in the number of injuries and fatalities from firearms-related hunting incidents.
The basic rules of safe firearms, according to the DNR, are as follows:
- Treat every firearm as if it is loaded.
- Always control the muzzle.
- Be sure of your target and what is beyond.
- Keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to shoot.
“Carelessness or nonchalant behavior can cause a hunting accident,” Rall said. “But most firearms or hunting accidents are a temporary lapse of concentration by the hunter.”
For example, in pheasant hunting, a hunter might be concentrating so hard on the bird that, as they’re swinging the gun up to shoot, they might fail to see another hunter in the field and hit them rather than the bird, Rall said. That would be a failure to be sure of the target and what’s beyond.
Dogs, for example, can be between a hunter and the target, or just beyond the target. Dogs need to be trained to be calm and to not begin a retrieval prematurely, and hunters need to be mindful of their dogs.
Many hunting accidents involving firearms are categorized as “accidental discharge."
In the DNR’s 2020 summary of Minnesota hunting incidents, published in February, the paw of a 17-year-old’s dog caught the victim’s gun, which fell from where it was rested. When the dog hit the trigger, the shot wounded the teenager. In another incident, a 43-year-old tripped and fell while running after a squirrel, which caused his firearm to discharge a round into his right hand.
Watch out, take precautions
One tactic Rall uses to maintain vigilance when walking near a road is to stop every 20 seconds or so to look for vehicles or people. Hunters should be careful to keep a margin between themselves and other hunters, respecting the space of others using the land.
Vigilance is also something nonhunters can practice during hunting season to improve their own safety as well as that of hunters.
“If they’re out hiking or walking, they should wear blaze orange clothing,” Rall said.
Small game hunters in Minnesota, too, are required to wear one article of blaze orange or blaze pink above the waist, and big game hunters must wear blaze orange or pink on 60% of the upper body and a blaze orange or pink hat as well.
“It’s truly amazing; I can be three-quarters of a mile away and I can see a person in orange that you would never see if they weren’t wearing it,” Rall said. “Blaze orange clothing or bright clothing can go a long way if people are out and about in wildlife habitat when they’re not hunting.”
Rall also carries a basic first aid kit in his truck, and noted that cellphones have dramatically changed the rate at which people can receive medical attention.
“Before you go hunting , tell somebody where you’re going and when you’re going to be home. I think that’s still critical,” Rall said. “If something would happen… they would have at least a general area of where to begin … that search, in the event that somebody goes missing.”
But if there was one thing he could tell all hunters, it would be to review those four basic rules of firearms safety every single time they’re about to go hunting — treat every firearm as if it is loaded, always control the muzzle, be sure of your target and what is beyond, and keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to shoot.
“Stay focused, stay concentrated. All the time,” Rall added.