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Any hunter understands Cheney's mistake

It's time to defend Vice President Dick Cheney. And this from one who is deeply suspicious of the Bush Administration's public lands policies.

But unlike most who have poured ink over this, I'm a bird hunter. Moreover, The News once hosted hunter safety classes where "know what's in the line of fire" was drummed into our attendees.

Still, America's 14 million licensed hunters can see how this could happen. I'll bet most hunters have been in at least one situation where what looked like a target (because of dense cover, clothing color or whatever) turned out to be a fellow hunter.

In 99.9 percent of these incidents, hunters don't shoot but afterward realize how close they came to pulling the trigger!

When they do shoot, it makes headlines.

It's hard to know exactly what happened, but from various reconstructions (the best was in the Wall Street Journal on Thursday) it appears that the victim, Harry Whittington, was to the right and somewhat ahead of the rest of the hunting party -- looking for a downed quail.

A covey flushed, Cheney swung to the right and pulled the trigger and at that moment saw the victim.

He was 90 feet away and using a small-gauge shotgun that probably held less than an ounce of No. 7 1/2 pellets and not, say, a heavy (magnum) turkey load. Whittington was wearing shooting glasses, saving his eyes because he took the pellets in the face, neck and chest.

The investigators ruled it an accident caused by a shooter "swinging on game." The vice president takes full responsibility.

It is clear that the first rule of bird hunting was not followed: Let others know where you are and be aware of where the other shooters are in relation to you.

I can see how this could happen, mainly because I've hunted bobwhite quail, once even in Texas. Quail are found in brushy cover and tend to gather in bunches called coveys of a dozen or more birds.

You cover the field walking abreast -- typically two or three guns with one or two pointing dogs. When the dogs get birdy and go on point, a dog or hunter goes in to flush the covey.

It's an electric thrill when a dozen softball-sized bundles of feather explode and scatter in every direction with a wild whistling of wings. And they are fast!

If you have a straight-ahead shot, take it. The gun on the right gets to shoot at the right flyers, the gun on the left at the left flyers. And you never shoot level for fear of hitting the dogs!

As you move through the field you whistle, chat, or call out to let folks know where you are. Anyone who has hunted pheasants in the wild tangles of tag alder in Niagara County -- where the bushes can totally hide you -- does the same thing.

I never hunt birds alone, but if I did I'd probably be talking to the dog or whistling just to warn anyone out there I was around. Hunting with others, I'd expect a lot of verbal communication.

I suspect that Whittington had become separated and suspect he was bent over peering into the brush looking for a downed bird.

When the next covey rose I'm sure he, like Cheney and everyone else there, straightened up and began to raise a gun -- just as the vice president (the man on the right) swung and shot at a right-flushing quail.

You cannot call back a shotgun charge, and I am sure everyone feels awful about this incident. It would not surprise me to learn that Cheney quits quail hunting after this, and doesn't resume even after he leaves office.

But my first reaction when the story broke was: What will the anti-hunters make of this?

Readers know that I do not like the administration's policies for drilling, mining and timbering in prime wildlife habitat in the lower 48 and Alaska -- policies crafted in large part by Cheney.

But in this instance he has my deepest sympathy. This could happen to anyone who hunts. I am not thrilled to see fellow journalists looking to create a scandal. No, this is a lesson: We all need constant review of the lessons we all had to learn to pass the written test for our first hunting license.


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