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Safety is Priceless

By taking these precautions, you can vastly improve your hunter safety this season.

By Larry D. Hodge

Compared to the 785 deaths from falls and 279 from drownings in Texas in 2001, hunting is a safe activity. Texas had only three hunting-related fatalities in each of the years 2001 and 2002, the second-lowest number since TPWD began keeping records in 1966. (The high was 37 deaths in 1968.) Given that more than one million Texans purchased hunting licenses and spent about 14 million days hunting in 2002, that’s a very good record. But it could have — should have — been better.

The death of 48-year-old Gary Derr of Shelbyville last Nov. 30 is an example of an incident that could have been prevented.

Derr and his 13-year-old son were happy to take advantage of the generous offer of a local landowner, who let people hunt his 300 acres in Shelby County for free. No check-in was required; people simply showed up and went hunting. Derr and his son entered the property through a gate and spent the afternoon deer hunting. Near sunset they walked from a wooded area toward an open field. As they walked, they startled some deer.

One at a time, the deer moved into an open field. Hunting in that field was 24-year-old Michael Cooper, who lived next to the property and had walked in. Neither Cooper nor the Derrs knew others were hunting.

A doe ran into the open field, and Michael Cooper shot it. Shortly after, a nice buck appeared, and Cooper shot it, too. Feeling lucky, Cooper went to look at the buck. It was after sunset but still well within legal shooting time, so when he heard a sound and saw movement at the edge of the field, he fired again.

This time it was no deer. Shot in the abdomen from about 250 yards, Gary Derr died in the hospital that night.

Game warden Jim Yetter of Shelbyville investigated the incident, and while he feels the shooting was an accident, he thinks it was preventable. “A lot of things went bad at the same time,” he says. “Mr. Cooper had just killed two deer and was excited. The Derrs were not wearing hunter orange. Mr. Cooper failed to identify his target. He could make out movement, but he could not tell what it was. The lack of light was definitely a factor. It’s a mistake he will have to live with the rest of his life.”

After investigations by the Shelby County sheriff and district attorney and consultation with the Derr family, no charges were filed. “Mr. Cooper was not breaking any hunting laws,” Yetter says. “The family also felt it was an accident and that charges were not appropriate.”

Four simple steps can help you avoid the most common hunting accidents.

1. Take a hunter education course. “Hunter education has had a great impact on the safety of hunters,” says TPWD education director Steve Hall. “The number of hunting accidents in the United States and Texas has declined by more than half in the last three decades.”

2. Fire only when it is safe. Be sure of your target and always be aware of your surroundings. Dove-hunting accidents in which the victim is covered by a shooter swinging on a bird remain the most common mishaps.

3. Never carry a loaded firearm in or around a vehicle. One of the 2002 fatalities occurred when a loaded handgun was passed from one person to another inside a vehicle.

4. Wear hunter orange to be seen. “Even though it may not be required when hunting on private land, hunter orange vests and caps have reduced ‘hunter judgment’ mistakes by more than 50 percent in states requiring them to be worn,” Hall says.

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