They’d been hunting all day. It was really hot. One of them decided to head across the gully to check a small clearing they’d shot a deer on before. The other couldn’t be bothered, so decided to sit and watch. A few moments later he saw movement on the clearing. He looked again, he saw the head, neck, shoulders and front legs of a stag. He watched the head go up and down as the animal fed. He reached for his rifle – it was unloaded – he reached for a round – then remembered the rule they had between them. If they separated, stop hunting, and don’t start again until contact is made and confirmed. He put the rifle back down. Then watched – as the ‘deer’ morphed into his mate standing waving at him!
True story – only in the real event the hunter shot and killed a member of his family, thinking he was a deer. And the scenario isn’t all that rare, and it’s one of the major ones in terms of events when one hunter shoots and kills another.
And preventing incidents like this comes back to some very basic firearms safety rules – we call it the Arms Code in New Zealand and it’s the hunters bible.
There’s seven basic rules. They’re all important, but the three that especially apply here are ‘treat every firearm as loaded’ – all the time! About 50% of incidents happen because people assume a firearm is unloaded.
That leads straight into the second rule: ‘always point firearms in a safe direction’ – all the time! In the scenario above the hunters have separated. There is no safe direction – they don’t know exactly where each other is.
And the third? ‘Identify your target beyond all doubt’. It sounds simple, but many have sat in the bush observing what they thought to be a deer only to find it was something totally NOT a deer. Very experienced shooters have told me about shooting horses, or pigs, or a nice looking punga bush, or something they didn’t recognise at all.
You’ll need to do more than apply the Arms Code when hunting in New Zealand. You are taking part in an outdoor activity, usually in the bush. Navigation, camping and wider outdoor safety skill are necessary. You’re in the big outdoors, and you need to know about safety management.
Things like making sure you don’t drop your guard – know where you are at all times, even roughly. Handle your firearm or bow, your knife, and your camping gear in a mindful way.
Don’t develop an attitude of over familiarization with what you’re doing. Even experienced hunters make mistakes: they shoot their mates, and cut or burn themselves. A sprained ankle due to careless foot placement means the end of your trip.
Don’t shift the responsibility for managing your safety to someone or something else. This means don’t leave it up to your mate to do the planning, organizing, navigation, safety plan or camping. Don’t rely on technology – cell phones often don’t work in the bush, and GPS’s can die. Know how to navigate using a map and compass and not relying on the GPS.
Don’t shift responsibility for your safety to a piece of clothing: the jury’s out on the benefits of any particular colour to wear when hunting. People have been shot wearing high viz orange. The high vis blue is popular and stands out. At the end of the day the shooter remains responsible for their shot – you might be helping avoid a tragedy by wearing a colour that contrasts with the environment you’re hunting in.
But given that about half of hunting incidents involve people shooting their mates, and half of all incidents involve a firearm that was loaded when it wasn’t meant to be, there’s two simple steps before anything that you can take: when you and your mate separate, cease hunting until you are back together, and, load your firearm only when ready to fire, and, unload after.
Believe you me you’re going to get excited when hunting. Your pupils will dilate, your breathing change, you may shake a little, your thinking will be affected. We call it ‘buck fever’ – know yourself, know it’ll happen, even if you’re really experienced. Prepare yourself to manage it.
I speak to a lot of hunters. They tell me there is a lot of deer out there. Deer being seen in places they haven’t been seen in for years. So these key safety messages become even more important as more people head out to get them.
Police are doing their part. They’re currently revising the Arms Code, and they’re adding a practical component to the training and testing required before you get a firearms licence. Shooter organisations have experts involved in both of these projects. And those delivering this practical component will refer applicants to local clubs.
There’s evidence that being an active member of a club enhances safety. Members of Deerstalkers (NZDA) have access to training through the HUNTS programme, trips led by skilled club members, and, the social component that is so important to us all. You’ll learn heaps and make new mates.
There’s rumblings about changes to the Arms Act and Arms Regulations. However the legislative process means these could be some time away, if ever. The Firearms Safety Council Aotearoa NZ (FSCANZ) is sending the message to Police that implementing the Act and Regulations as they stand would be a good start.
FSCANZ is advising Police and Government to think carefully before increasing penalties: firearms offenders tell us that there is a tipping point where the penalty is so high it is worthwhile getting into a shoot out!