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GF&P to hunters: 'Get Outta the Truck'

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As East River deer season starts, the GF&P kicks off a new program called “Get Outta the Truck.”2 / 2

Lon Reidburn considered himself a cautious, safe hunter, and he still does.

“But I just lost all my senses that day about shooting deer,” the Clark resident said of a hunting incident that changed his life. “It just took one minute, one split second.”

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Reidburn, while hunting deer from his pickup, was accidentally shot in the legs by his hunting partner. The bullet from the rifle penetrated both legs, resulting in a compound fracture in one leg.

He spent more than four months in hospitals undergoing multiple surgeries because of what he calls “a preventable accident.”

The incident occurred in 1982. Reidburn hasn’t picked up a rifle to go deer hunting since, but says he still hunts pheasants and waterfowl.

In the past decade, there have been 29 vehicle-related hunting incidents reported to the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks. Four of those incidents resulted in fatalities and 11 involved shooters who passed the state’s HuntSAFE hunter education course.

As this weekend’s East River deer season starts today, those numbers have prompted the GF&P to kick off a new program called “Get Outta the Truck,” which alerts hunters to ethical, safe hunting practices and makes them aware of the dangers of shooting from inside a vehicle.

Jason Kool, a GF&P program specialist, works mainly with the statewide hunter education program HuntSAFE. He’s pleased with the GF&P’s new initiative and says it’s important to track hunting incidents, a statistic the state has compiled since 1988.

“One of the big components we use for tracking these is to see where things went wrong, finding out what happened, what was preventable, and how can we apply this in our hunter education classes so kids can learn from these mistakes,” Kool said.

South Dakota laws

Although South Dakota law allows loaded, uncased firearms inside vehicles, it is illegal for hunters to shoot big game such as white-tailed deer, or small game such as pheasants, from inside or on top of a vehicle. Exceptions are allowed for hunters who hold a Disabled Hunter Permit, or if a hunter is shooting anywhere in the state at coyotes, jackrabbits, rodents, skunks, badgers, raccoons and red and gray fox, or at wolves east of the Missouri River.

Legal repercussions for shooting from a motor vehicle at big and small game can include fines of $195 and a loss of hunting privileges. People are encouraged to call the Turn In Poachers hotline at 1-888-OVERBAG if they see a game violation.

“There are reasons we have these laws,” Reidburn said. “It’s for safety. It’s not worth it.”

South Dakota’s firearm transportation laws are lenient compared to other nearby states. North Dakota law states the firearm must be unloaded; Iowa law states the firearm must be unloaded and cased; and Minnesota law states the firearm must be unloaded, cased and out of the vehicle passenger compartment. Like South Dakota, other nearby states’ laws say shooting from a vehicle at small and large game is illegal unless the hunter possesses a disability permit.

The day of his 1982 incident, Reidburn had harvested a trophy buck. He spotted the animal from his vehicle, stepped out of the truck, walked into the ditch and shot the deer. Later in the day, while driving the truck with his neighbor beside him in the passenger’s seat, three deer jumped across the road. His neighbor pointed the gun out of the window and readied to shoot, but there wasn’t a good shot.

Reidburn got out and stood by the driver’s side of the truck and pressured his partner to hurry and shoot. His partner scooted over to the driver’s side of the vehicle, tried to get out, inadvertently pointed the muzzle of the gun toward Reidburn in the process, and the gun went off.

Reidburn was transported to the Watertown hospital, where doctors told his wife his leg might have to be amputated. Luckily, he kept his leg. He was flown to Sioux Falls and had to overcome wheelchairs, walkers and crutches to gain the ability to walk again.

“They call them accidents and that was what it was, but it could have been prevented,” Reidburn said. “I think quite a few of them are preventable.”

It was the second time Reidburn had been shot while hunting. The first time occurred when he was waterfowl hunting. He was with a friend, and they crawled up on opposite sides of a dugout to open fire on a group of ducks sitting in between the mounds of dirt. He was hit in the legs with pellets from a shotgun.

“How stupid can you be? I spent quite a bit of time in the hospital for that,” he said, referring to the waterfowl incident. “Somewhere, someone is watching over me, and he’s saying either ‘quit hunting’ or ‘start doing it right.’ ”

There is no state law that defines an accidental shooting while hunting as a crime, but there are laws against recklessly handling a firearm.

Davison County State’s Attorney Jim Miskimins said any person who recklessly discharges a firearm may be convicted of a misdemeanor. He added it could be up to a one-year county jail sentence and a $2,000 fine.

“Reckless handling involves more action than simple negligence,” Miskimins said. “They are doing something in disregard of the safety of the situation. It’s more than a simple mistake.”

Reidburn’s neighbor who shot him while deer hunting was not charged with a crime.

Suicide follows incident

In 2008, GF&P Conservation Officer Brad Saltsman did his first and so far only investigation of a fatal hunting incident.

Saltsman, based in Gettysburg, received a call from dispatch about a hunting accident for which a state officer was needed.

When he arrived at the scene, he found Lanny O’Neal, of Brandon, had been fatally shot by hunting partner Mark Ritter with a Remington Model 700 bolt-action .243. O’Neal and Ritter were in the vehicle with two other partners, and the party was deer hunting on the second day of deer season in Dewey County.

According to court documents from a lawsuit later filed by O’Neal’s wife against the gun manufacturer, Ritter allegedly reached down to pick up the M700 that was sitting in the floor of the truck. As he picked up the rifle by the stock, he used his thumb to push the safety to off. The documents say the trigger was not pulled or contacted in any manner, but instead the rifle fired by a phenomenon known as firing on safety release. The bullet from the rifle traveled through the seat cushion and struck O’Neal in the upper back, traveling through his stomach, spleen and left lung.

The incident report filed by Saltsman states there were a combined 58 years of hunting experience between Ritter and O’Neal. Ritter had also taken a HuntSAFE course when he was younger.

Saltsman declined to comment on the incident to The Daily Republic, but wrote in the summary of the report that, “The major factors of the incident are contributed to the shooter entering and exiting the vehicle with a loaded firearm. The shooter also handled the firearm carelessly by pointing the muzzle of the rifle at another person while exiting the vehicle, and clicking the safety off while the muzzle was still pointed into a vehicle and at O’Neal. If any one of these factors were avoided, this incident would not have occurred.”

Saltsman, who has been a conservation officer for 10 years, believes hunting is a safe pastime when done correctly.

“Every day that goes by that we’re not called to a hunting-related incident is a good day,” he said.

After the incident, O’Neal’s wife, Carol, filed a lawsuit against Remington, alleging among other things that the firearm was in a “defective and unreasonably dangerous condition” because of Remington’s “failure to warn of its propensity to unexpectedly discharge without pulling the trigger.”

The case is still pending and Carol O’Neal — who declined to be interviewed for this story — is seeking compensatory damages in excess of $75,000 and unspecified punitive damages.

Earlier this month, on Nov. 6, Ryan O’Neal — Carol and Lanny’s son — committed suicide at the age of 17. The day before his father was shot in the incident, Ryan graduated from HuntSAFE.

In a report of all the vehicle-related hunting incidents assembled by the GF&P in the past decade, a passage reads “Ryan never got over losing his father as the result of this incident. He had been fighting with the loss for the last five years.”

814 total incidents

There have been about 814 hunting-related incidents reported since the state started keeping records in 1988. Those are all incidents, including ones that happen from vehicles and out in the field. Of those 814, 24 resulted in fatalities.

South Dakota is known as the pheasant capital of the world, and 75 percent of the incidents occurred while hunting upland game, which includes pheasants, quail, grouse and doves, among other species. Kool said upland game incidents mainly happen when hunters swing their muzzle too far while party hunting, shoot without knowing what’s in the background, or accidentally fire shotgun pellets at another person in the field.

“I do know there are incidents that don’t get reported or ones that probably happen that people just try to hide,” Kool said. “For example, I have a couple different kids in my class when we talk about how to safely transport firearms, and a student will chime up and say, ‘We don’t do it that way. My dad shot the window out of the truck.’ ”

Steve Hall is the executive director of the International Hunter Education Association and visited Mitchell to hunt pheasants during the season’s opening weekend in 2004.

The 54-year-old from Denver has been hunting since he was 9. He believes pheasant hunting and deer hunting, specifically in South Dakota, bring a culture and peer pressure to hunt illegally from the vehicle.

“It’s bad habits that are formed when you’re growing up,” Hall said. “Some people think if they don’t do it, they’re less of a person. You really have to knock some safety sense into people in those situations.”

Hall said according to nationwide data collected when states report their annual hunting incidents, there have been about eight fatalities per 1 million hunting participants in recent years. That number has dropped significantly from the 1960s, when there were about 25 to 30 fatalities per 1 million hunting participants.

Wearing blaze orange in the field, the spread of hunter education courses and stiffer laws on transporting firearms have made hunting safer over time, Hall said.

HuntSAFE course

In the 29 vehicle-related hunting incidents reported to the South Dakota GF&P in the past decade, four involved shooters who were 15 years old or younger.

Kool said the comparatively low number shows the HuntSAFE program, which has been in place since 1956 and is designed for youth ages 12 to 15, is successful.

“I think the program itself is fantastic,” Kool said. “If you look at the age of those individuals involved in hunting incidents, it’s not those who are right around the 11-, 12-, 13-year-old age group. Most of it happens when we have adults maybe forget or weren’t as cautious as they were when they first graduated from the hunter education or HuntSAFE class.”

The HuntSAFE program is a 10-hour course that teaches firearm safety, handling firearms, conservation ethics and hunter responsibility. Students who successfully complete a HuntSAFE course receive an identification card listing their name, date of certification, a certification number and the signature of the instructor.

Until the student is 16, a parent or guardian must present the HuntSAFE certification card to a license vendor when purchasing the young person’s hunting license. The parent or guardian agrees, by signing the license application, to accompany the student in the field while he or she is hunting until the youth is 16.

Ron Kolbeck, of Salem, was named the state’s 2009 HuntSAFE Instructor of the Year. He’s been teaching courses for 13 years and is encouraged by the state’s initiative to remind hunters to get out of their vehicles and safely shoot at their target.

“This initiative is basically the reason I started teaching the class,” he said while taking a break from West River deer hunting Thursday. “I was upset with the unethical part of shooting from the road. In 1996, I was East River deer hunting, and I almost got shot from someone shooting from a vehicle. It became very important to me.”

Kolbeck, who is a proponent of stiffer firearm transportation laws, never carries a loaded firearm in his vehicle because he has heard too many stories and seen too many incidents where something went wrong — including the O’Neal fatality. Kolbeck works with Carol O’Neal.

“The reason it’s so unsafe to have a loaded firearm in a vehicle is muzzle control,” he said. “When you’re trying to get out of a vehicle and you lift a gun up, that’s generally when a gun accidentally discharges because the trigger gets caught on something or bumped.”

Quite simply, Kolbeck says to be a safe hunter this weekend, don’t have a loaded firearm in the vehicle.

“I would like to see more strict regulation on it,” he said. “I understand part of the reason they allow it is for farmers and ranchers to have predator control, which is a valid issue, but that’s why I think this is a great initiative, to change people’s thoughts on how to hunt and how to do it ethically.”