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How Did Dick Cheney Break the No. 1 Rule of Hunting?

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The cardinal rule of hunting could not be more simple: Donít shoot the people (or the dogs). If thereís anyone in Washington who knows this, one would have thought it would be Vice President Dick Cheney, who accidentally shot his friend and fellow hunter Harry Whittington, 78, late Saturday afternoon. Whittington is expected to recover from his injuries, but the question will linger on: how does an accident like this happen among hunters with so much experience?

For years, Cheney's take-charge public image has been bolstered by photos of him fly fishing in Wyoming and stories about Cheney jetting into hunting hotspots for quail, pheasant and other game. While serving as a congressman from Wyoming — before President Bushís father tapped him for secretary of defense in 1989 — Cheney was a solid ally of the National Rifle Association, the staunch defender of gun rights, which also preaches gun safety.

Cheney frequently hunts ducks in Arkansas, Texas and South Dakota. His hunting career had been relatively smooth until controversy arose after he was reported to have taken conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia hunting in Louisiana in 2004, just after the Court had agreed to hear a case involving the secrecy of documents related to the Vice Presidentís 2001 work heading an energy task force. (Cheney was in favor of keeping them secret.)

Cheney also drew attention for reportedly shooting ducks and some 70 pen-raised pheasants at the exclusive Rolling Rock Club in southwestern Pennsylvania in December 2003. Experts were quoted at the time as saying thereís nothing wrong, legally at least, with blasting away at stocked birds. But depending on how and when they are released, it should not be confused with actual hunting, since disoriented birds placed in the field or released in front of the shooters are often neither as wary or elusive as wild quarry.

An eyewitness account reported by the Associated Press suggests that Cheney may have, in the heat of the moment, violated the No. 1 rule of hunting by failing to keep track of his hunting buddies at all times. The AP quoted the ranch's owner saying that Cheney could easily have failed to see Whittington, as the latter walked up behind the Vice President from lower ground and in tall grass. To be sure, safety should be paramount for everyone in a hunting party and some responsibility would have fallen to Whittington to make sure his fellow hunters knew he might be just out of sight behind them. But for the shooter, hunting safety dictates that focusing on the target should never be more important than keeping in mind what's behind it.

Accidents can happen, of course, in a single careless moment. Quail, when you find them and they flush, donít exactly follow gun-safety rules. They fly up suddenly and may go in any direction. And the first thing that happens to the hunter is the adrenaline rush. Thatís why quail hunters wear orange, as Cheney's group reportedly were. And thatís why experts counsel the hunter not to sweep the shotgun around and fire if they donít know whatís in the line of fire. Knowing what's behind the target is also a rule with which, one can bet, Cheneyís Secret Service detail would have wanted Whittington himself to be intimate.

What probably spared Whittington more critical injury was the tiny size of birdshot being used on the hunt; quail are typically hunted with No. 8 shot, which is even smaller than BBs. After the accident, Whittington's face "looks like chicken pox, kind of. He's so lucky, it's a miracle," Whittington's daughter Sally told the Dallas Morning News. Cheney visited Whittington in the hospital the next day. The vice president "feels so bad," said Sally May. "He's a very accomplished hunter. He was obviously relieved to see how well my father was doing."

If Cheney now finds himself criticized or lampooned, he'll ironically be in the same position he himself put Senator John Kerry in during the final days of the 2004 Presidential campaign, though the circumstances then did not involve a potentially deadly accident. At the time, Cheney used his widely-known experience as a hunter to mock a duck-hunting foray in Ohio in which Senator John Kerry ended up shooting a goose. "The senator who gets a grade of 'F' from the National Rifle Association went hunting this morning," Cheney reportedly said, to hoots. "I understand he bought a new camouflage jacket for the occasion, which did make me wonder how regularly he does go goose hunting.Ē As the Texas incident shows, experience does not make hunters immune to accidents, which is why hunting advocacy groups put such a relentless focus on safety as the top priority.

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