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  • Patrick Durkin

Older Hunters, Not Newbies, Cause Most Shootings in Wisconsin

Hunting in Wisconsin is 95% safer than in 1966, but if you still feel skittish, consider this:


You can further reduce your odds of getting shot by monitoring yourself more carefully if you’re 41 or older, and closely watching other hunters in that age group.


That advice is neither flip nor unfair. Data compiled by the Department of Natural Resources since 2007 show that experienced hunters cause most shootings throughout Wisconsin’s hunting seasons. And 36% of all hunter-involved shootings the past 10 years were self-inflicted.


Yep. When hunters get shot or shoot themselves, the triggerman probably isn’t a young, inexperienced hunter. Over the 14 most recent hunting seasons, hunters 17 and younger typically caused less than 20% of the shootings. And if you throw out the outlier — 46% in 2016 — that percentage drops to 17%.


A couple of caveats: Age-related data for 2019 wasn’t available, and the DNR’s 2016 data was incomplete, defining only three age groups: 60 and older, 27% of shooters; age 31-40, 18% of shooters; and age 12-17, 46% of shooters.


Since 2007, hunters 40 and older have triggered 51% of Wisconsin’s shooting incidents. In fact, that age group performed at record-worst levels a year ago even as Wisconsin hunters recorded only 12 shootings. According to the DNR’s 2021 hunter-education report (https://widnr.widen.net/s/ddqphtxfv9/he_annual-report_2021), 67% of the 2021 shooters were 41 or older. More specifically, 42% were 61 or older, 8% were 51 to 60, and 17% were 41 to 50.


We should note, however, those percentages don’t factor in the sizes of each age group. It’s possible some age groups account for more shootings simply because they include more hunters. Even so, hunters 40 and older caused 50% or more of the state’s shooting incidents in seven of the past 14 hunting seasons, and over 40% of the shootings in five other seasons.


And the patterns are fairly consistent. The DNR’s 2007 report showed hunters 40 and older caused 66% of the 27 hunting incidents. Of those, the riskiest group was 40- to 49-year-olds, with 30% of the shootings; followed by 50- to 59-year-olds, 22%, and 60 and older, 14%.


Five years later, the DNR reported 28 shootings during the 2012 fall hunts, with hunters 40 and older causing 58% of the incidents. And five years later, the DNR reported 22 shootings, with hunters 40 and older causing 55% of the shootings in 2017.


The only outlier since 2007 was 2018, when hunters 40 and older triggered 29% of the shootings, the same percentage caused by hunters 12 to 17 years old. And if you look at adult (18 and older) vs. youth percentages in 2021, adults triggered 84% of shootings; youths, 9%; and unknown, 8%. Over the past 10 years, adults caused 82% of shootings and youths 18%.


Matt O’Brien, the DNR’s deputy chief warden, said 33% of shooters in 2021 never took the state’s hunter-education course, which has been mandatory for everyone born since 1973. That means hunters now 50 and older didn’t have to take the program, which might help explain why the average age of shooters in 2021’s hunting incidents was 51. And for shooters who took the course, the average time lapse between their education and the shooting was 20 years.


O’Brien said it’s grown harder for the DNR to connect with older hunters, and harder yet to not make them feel persecuted by suggesting remedial training.


“The challenge is how best can we reach hunters in that age group,” O’Brien said. “With all the options on the internet, from social media to podcasts, we can’t just create one public-service ad, play it on local radio stations, and assume we’re reaching 90% of our hunters. And even if we could, not everyone will believe they’re complacent about firearms safety. Or they might take it personally and resent the message. In some ways, it’s like telling senior citizens they have to requalify for their driver’s license. It’s not an easy conversation.”


Meanwhile, hunting today is remarkably safe. Wisconsin recorded 264 shooting incidents in 1966, but only 12 in 2021, a 95% decline. That means the state went from 44 shootings per 100,000 hunters in 1966 to 0.15 per 100,000 the past three years.


Further, six of the past 10 gun-deer seasons had zero fatal shootings, but one each the past two years. Why the safer hunts? In addition to mandatory hunter-ed programs, Wisconsin also mandated blaze-orange clothing in 1980. Further, most hunters now hunt smaller properties, and they’ve mostly abandoned deer drives while switching to elevated stands as their main tactic. O’Brien also thinks hunters aren’t hunting as hard or as often as before, with many staying home after opening weekend.


Even so, hunter-education remains vital. Since launching its training program in 1967, Wisconsin has fielded over 16,700 volunteer instructors the past 55 years. O’Brien is concerned, however, by steady declines in instructor numbers, which fell 19% in 2021 (3,200 to 2,600); and 35% from 2012 to 2021 (4,000 instructors to 2,600).


O’Brien said the fastest way to improve safety is to guard against complacency. He also reminds hunters that some residents don’t know the gun-deer season opens the Saturday before Thanksgiving each year. They’ll ride horses, or hike or bike rural areas and public lands without wearing brightly colored clothes


“Don’t assume you’re alone in the woods, and don’t take shortcuts just because you’ve gotten away with it before,” O’Brien said.


He urges hunters to live by the four “TABK” rules of gun safety: T – Treat every firearm as if it’s loaded. A – Always point the gun’s muzzle in a safe direction. B – Be certain what’s in front of your target and beyond. K – Keep your finger outside the trigger guard until ready to shoot.


The “TABK” acronym builds in redundancies. “If you don’t do one thing right, you should still be OK,” O’Brien said. “But you lose redundancies with each shortcut. If you trip and fall with the safety off, and your finger or a stick gets inside the trigger guard, you’re in trouble.”


Wisconsin: Recent Hunting Incidents

Total Shooter Age Shooter Age

Year Incidents 40 & Older 17 & Younger

2021 12 67% 9%

2020 21 59% 12%

2019 18 Not Available

2018 17 29% 29%

2017 22 55% 9%

2016 11 27% (age 60+) 46%

2015 23 43% 18%

2014 18 45% 16%

2013 27 56% 7%

2012 28 58% 21%

2011 26 43% 23%

2010 32 42% 28%

2009 18 50% 28%

2008 30 47% 13%

2007 27 66% 7%

Hunting has never been safer in Wisconsin, but older hunters could make the woods even more safe by guarding against complacency. — Patrick Durkin photo

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