Hunt tragedy didn't have to happen

OUTDOORS

November 02, 2003|By CANDUS THOMSON

No one would argue that the death of Tyler Mattison last weekend wasn't tragic.

A 10-year-old boy with a sunny smile and pet turtle isn't supposed to end up dead, with friends and family left wondering what kind of grown-up he might have been.

The real tragedy here is that Tyler didn't have to die. His being shot in the chest by a crossbow while hunting on the Eastern Shore was an outcome that could have been prevented. There were plenty of warning signs.

Tyler was hunting with his father. When you're a kid, what feels safer than that? But out in the woods, you need more than that. You need to follow the rules.

Tyler didn't follow the rules because Tyler most likely didn't know them. Christopher Mattison hadn't taken his son to the required hunter safety course.

Without a certification card, the boy couldn't get a hunting license and the accompanying booklet of state rules and regulations. Before last Saturday Tyler had never handled a crossbow, investigators say.

So when Tyler got up in that tree stand, he was defenseless, a babe in the woods.

It doesn't matter whether the crossbow discharged when he rested the stock on the tree stand as he started to climb down or as he was handing the loaded crossbow to his father on the ground.

What happened, though incredibly heartbreaking, was not a cruel twist of fate or a curse of the gods or an unavoidable accident.

Unfortunately, Tyler's death became a how-not-to hunt "teachable moment."

We've become a society where the word "accident" is used to avoid assigning blame and holding someone accountable.

Drive too fast on bald tires in bad weather and run off the road. Hey, too bad about your accident.

Capsize after you put too many people on your boat without life jackets and some of them drown. Again, an accident.

At a media briefing Friday on the Mattison case, Maryland Natural Resouces Police Col. Scott Sewell said, "At this point in the investigation, we believe it was accidental."

I remember another case where the word "accident" was thrown around too liberally.

In 1988, a 37-year-old mother of twins was shot to death in her back yard in Maine by a hunter who said he mistook her white mittens for the underside of a deer's tail.

Donald Rogerson was 63 yards from Karen Wood, who was wearing a dark blue coat. He fired a single shot from his Remington .30-06 rifle mounted with a high-definition scope.

Rogerson was charged with manslaughter. But the jury acquitted him because, of course, it was not his fault.

"The verdict makes it clear that the jury feels it was an accident," said William Vail, commissioner of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. "Accidents are accidents. ... It was a tragedy on both sides."

Even Rogerson bought into that mentality. "She was as much a victim of circumstances as I was," he told the Bangor Daily News. "Maybe in the month of November, is it such a great infringement upon your freedom to maybe put away that white coat or a tan coat?"

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

The head of Maryland's investigation is a nice man with good intentions. Sewell's characterizing Tyler's death as most likely "accidental" may soften the blow to the Mattison family. But why is he drawing conclusions before the investigation is done?

Tyler is the victim, but the real loser here is the truth, something that will come back to haunt us as sure as Friday was Halloween.

No doubt someone will declare that after just one season we've seen enough of "dangerous crossbows" and it's time to ban them again to all but disabled hunters.

Sewell on Friday hinted that he felt that way.

But are crossbows dangerous? What isn't? Motorists using cell phones or electric razors or putting on makeup fall into that category, too. There are, on average, 1,700 swimming fatalities each year in this country.

A look at 2001 statistics for North America shows crossbows are no more dangerous than any other form of hunting.

In the past three years, there have been five fatalities involving traditional bows and none involving crossbows, according to the International Hunter Education Association.

Just last year, there were 30 fatal incidents in which a hunter shot himself or someone else with a shotgun, 44 fatalities in which the firearm was a rifle, three with a muzzleloader and one with a traditional bow.

Closer to home, we can look to Ohio, which made crossbows legal in 1976. In the past 27 years of record-keeping, there have been four crossbow fatalities and two traditional-bow fatalities. Last year, the state had 100,000 crossbow hunters and 88,000 traditional-bow users.

So, hunters who don't like crossbows better not use that "dangerous" label to describe them unless they want to open up a larger public debate on their weapon of choice.

Someone might use this tragedy as a reason to call for raising the minimum hunting age. National statistics show that youths under 19 are disproportionately involved in hunting mishaps, including self-inflicted injuries and deaths.

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