Without blaze orange, hunters' lives at risk
By DAVID GULLIVER, The Virginian-Pilot
During the past four decades, hundreds of hunters in Virginia have been shot, including 148 killed, while disregarding a basic safety precaution of wearing blaze orange, a Virginian-Pilot analysis of state hunting accident records found.
The wounded hunters were not wearing the bright-colored material that helps distinguish them. Hunters have been required by state law to wear orange during firearm deer season since 1987. The season continues through Saturday in most of Virginia.
Hunters do not have to wear orange during other seasons, but the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries recommends they wear it at all times.
During all seasons from 1960 through 2001, hunters shot at least 741 people who weren't wearing the orange clothing. That total doesn't include self-inflicted wounds, victims out of the shooter's sight or those struck by ricochets or misfires. Another 242 people wearing orange were shot, during the same time.
Most shootings where blaze orange wasn't worn happened while hunting turkey, when there were 274 accidents -- and the special coloring is not required.
In deer season, hunters accidentally shot 240 people.
Since the orange-clothing law took effect in 1987, 54 deer hunters were shot, 19 fatally, while wearing no blaze orange. Over the same time, 132 turkey hunters were shot, 15 fatally, without blaze orange.
``It's just total carelessness, that someone shoots at something they're not supposed to,'' said Billy Maurice, 54, a Virginia Beach resident who said he has hunted for 40 years without an accident.
The shootings, while serious, are relatively rare compared with the 250,000 people with Virginia hunting licenses. The state has no estimate of how many actually hunt each year.
The hunting accidents records also show:
- Almost one-third of accidental shootings are by hunters 18 or younger. One in 10 is by a hunter 14 or younger.
- The most dangerous times in the season are the first few days: One of every six accidents happens in the first two days of a season.
- At least 146 hunters were hurt using tree stands, either by falling or by shooting themselves while climbing. The stands attach to trees to elevate a hunter.
- Hunter education classes seem to make a difference. About three-quarters of the shooters in accidents had not taken the state's course, which is mandatory for new hunters.
- Shooting accidents seem to be declining, from about 22 a year from 1970 through 1989, to 12 a year in the 1990s.
Maurice said he has seen a few close calls -- most often, someone shooting in the direction of another hunter.
Planning ``shooting zones'' with other hunters is crucial, he said. When hunters are working together, each only shoots in a specified area. But not everyone is that careful.
``You've got to decide in a split second whether to shoot,'' he said. ``Some people will get excited and shoot when they're not supposed to.''
Blaze orange helps a hunter make that quick decision, he said, and that's why he wears it regardless of what he's hunting. ``I don't care what season it is. I wear it.''
Some hunters still don't. At least 54 victims since 1960 were dressed head-to-toe in camouflage with no orange.
``Some people think the deer are going to see it,'' said Adam Maurice, Billy's son. He's learned otherwise.
``I've had deer come within 10 feet of me while I was wearing it,'' he said.
Many hunters don't know deer are colorblind.
``I think it's a matter of educating people about blaze orange and getting them to change their habits,'' said Lt. Scott Reynolds, a hunter and state game warden.
Violating the blaze-orange rule is punishable by a $25 fine. Last year, there were 195 convictions, down from 235 the year before.
Simply wearing an orange hat can be enough -- each hunter must wear at least 100 square inches of the color that must be visible from all angles.
Turkey don't see color, but they can distinguish shades and patterns -- such as a block of orange in a forest of green -- so blaze orange isn't required while hunting the birds, said Julia Dixon Smith, a Game and Inland Fisheries spokeswoman.
In its hunter education course, the department recommends that hunters wear orange while moving in and out of the woods and while setting decoys, Smith said.
Adam Maurice first went hunting with his father when he was 3. Wrapped in a blanket, he watched and learned. He remembers learning how to carry a gun safely -- safety on, barrel straight up or straight down -- on those trips.
``Your father shows you what to do and what not to do. That's the best way to learn,'' said Adam, who runs the family's electronics repair business with his father.
Now 24, Adam said the state's hunter education course still was a good refresher. It drills home the basic point:
``You always have to make sure where people are. If you don't, you don't shoot. It's not worth the risk.''
About 14,000 people took the free, 10-hour state course last year
"A vote is like a rifle: its usefulness depends upon the character of the user."