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Hunter-safety education triggers drop in accidents

Mishaps are at historic lows throughout the U.S.

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Vice President Dick Cheney's accidental shooting of a hunting companion in Texas comes at a time when hunting mishaps are at historic lows throughout the country after many states started requiring gun safety classes for new hunters.

It is not known whether Cheney has ever taken formal safety instruction. The White House hasn't answered that question. Officials in Texas and Wyoming, where Cheney grew up, said there is no record of him taking such a class.

Cheney told a meeting of the National Rifle Association in 2004 that he "learned from my dad how to handle a gun." He also acknowledged that, "The right to own a firearm carries serious responsibilities" and praised the NRA's gun safety programs.

"We don't have a record of him taking a hunting safety class in Wyoming, but he would not necessarily have had to," said Eric Keszler, spokesman for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

Wyoming requires anyone born after 1965 to obtain a "certificate of competency and safety in the use and handling of firearms" before receiving a hunting license.

"This varies from state to state. In Colorado, for instance, everyone has to take the class regardless of their age. But many states have grandfather clauses similar to ours," Keszler said.

Lydia Saldana of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department said that Cheney "did not" take safety classes in her state. "But let me be clear about this. Because of his age, he was not required to. Our law only requires people born on or after Sept. 2, 1971, to take this class," Saldana said.

Texas officials were quick to praise the impact of the Lone Star State's mandatory safety training as the primary reason for declining hunting accidents over the past 40 years, dropping to all-time lows last year. Two people died in 2005, down from Texas' most deadly hunting season in 1968 when 37 people died.

"We like to say that hunting is safe and getting safer, and it really is," said Steve Hall, education director for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. "Mandatory hunter education is really having an impact."

His department calculated that hunting accidents occurred at a rate of one for every 10,858 hunting licenses issued for the deadliest decade, the period from 1966 to 1975. But during the last 10 years, the rate dropped to one accident for 26,250 licenses.

"We're still on a trend that is taking us downward," Hall said.

Mandatory hunter education became the law in 1988, although Texas offered safety certification classes for much longer. Since 1972, the wildlife department has certified more than 650,000 Texans.

The International Hunter Education Association has reported a broad decline in injuries and death throughout the United States and Canada for the 10-year period from 1989 through 1998. Fatal and non-fatal accidents declined by 41 percent.

The association also reported that shotguns, the weapon Cheney was using Feb. 11, accounted for 71 percent of the casualties when one hunter shot another. The group reported that bad judgment was the cause of 73 percent of the casualties.

Cheney has long been an advocate of the rights of gun owners.

"Like many of you, I grew up close to the land, learned from my dad how to handle a gun and still look forward to every chance to join up with friends to go hunting," Cheney told the NRA two years ago.

"The right to own a firearm carries serious responsibilities which your organization and our administration well understand. The NRA has long led the way in promoting gun safety."