By David Rainer
As Hunter Education Coordinator for the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division, Marisa Futral is keenly sensitive to any breech in the safe handling of firearms.
Muzzle control is one area that people seem to overlook on hunting trips or visits to the shooting range. Always be aware of where the muzzle of the firearm is pointing at all times.
“People will say, ‘Oh, it’s not loaded,’” Futral says. “But hunter safety begins with the premise that you treat every gun as if it is loaded. I don’t care if you ‘know’ a gun is unloaded. Make sure the muzzle is pointed in a safe direction at all times.”
One of the two firearms-related fatalities that occurred in Alabama during the 2011-2012 season had to do with muzzle control. In Autauga County, the hunter was lowering his loaded firearm from his treestand when it discharged and struck him in the chest.
There already have been four non-fatal accidents involving firearms during the first month of the 2012-2013 season.
“The four accidents we’ve had this year had to do with muzzle control,” Futral says. “People have shot themselves in the foot and the arm. Muzzle control is very important to a safe hunting trip.”
The other firearms-related fatality during the 2011-2012 season involved breaking the cardinal rule of properly identifying the target and beyond.
In Mobile County, the victim was mistaken for game and shot by a member of his hunting party.
“Failure to properly identify your target is one of the most common mistakes people make,” Futral says. “You must be absolutely sure before you pull the trigger.”
There were 13 non-fatal firearms accidents during the 2011-12 season, which seemed like a significant increase after there were only three firearms-related accidents during the 2010-2011 season. There were 10 non-fatal firearms accidents in 2009-2010 and 9 in 2008-2009.
However, the increased emphasis on hunter safety is definitely paying off in a decrease in accidents. Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries started tracking firearms-related accidents during the 1973-74 season, when there were an astonishing 19 fatal and 25 non-fatal accidents involving firearms. The total number of firearms-related accidents remained high, peaking at 52 during the 1984-85 season. The average number of firearms-related accidents since the 2003-2004 season has been less than 10 per season.
Another significant piece of good news was the number of fatal treestand accidents during the 2011-2012 season.
“We had nine non-fatal treestand accidents,” Futral says. “But we had zero fatalities in treestand accidents. I’m really pleased about that. Some of our advertising may have helped.”
The Hunter Education Program made a significant push to highlight treestand safety after there were five fatalities from treestand accidents during the 2010-2011 season.
“The five fatalities in treestand accidents were unusually high,” Futral says. “We’re trying to make sure hunters check all the straps on their stands and safety harnesses for wear and make sure their climbers are good before they go to the woods. We’ve had several accidents happen when they’re trying to put up their treestands. We’ve already had two accidents in Montgomery County.”
Futral reminds hunters to wear the proper amount (144 square inches) of hunter orange during the gun deer season and to carry a flashlight for coming out of the woods at dusk.
“Some people worry about scaring the deer, but they need to carry a flashlight to make sure they’re not mistaken for game,” she says.
Futral also emphasized the use of a full-body harnesses when using an elevated stand.
“Be sure to wear a full-body harness anytime you leave the ground,” she says. “You are required by law to use a full-body harness on wildlife management areas. To our knowledge, there has never been a fatality for anyone who has been wearing a full-body harness that was properly attached to the tree.”
Futral reminds hunters to practice the 10 commandments of firearms safety:
10. Avoid drugs and alcohol when hunting or shooting. Even some over-the-counter medicines can cause impairment.
Hunter safety has been mandatory in Alabama since 1993 and anyone born on or after Aug. 1, 1977 is required to complete the course before the person can purchase a regular hunting license. People of license-buying age (16 and older) who haven’t completed the hunter education requirement are allowed to purchase a restricted license to hunt with a properly licensed hunter as a mentor. The license will indicate ‘supervision required,’ which means the new hunter must be within normal voice control – not over 30 feet – from a properly licensed hunter who is at least 21 years old.
“Our hunting accidents have decreased over the last several years, so we’re making progress,” Futral says. “But when accidents can be prevented by wearing a full-body harness, it just makes sense. If they don’t get anything else from a hunter safety class – wear a full-body harness.”
David Rainer is Public Information Manager with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.