Matthew Theunissen

Matthew Theunissen is a reporter for the Herald on Sunday.

Protection for the hunt's human targets

Police Minister Anne Tolley says the gun law is doing its job, but the critics don't agree

About 40,000 duck shooters are expected for today's opening of the season. Photo / Supplied
About 40,000 duck shooters are expected for today's opening of the season. Photo / Supplied

Cyndy McDonald wants the hunter who shot dead her "beautiful boy" to be locked up for a long time.

But she knows that may not happen without a law change - a change the Government has ruled out.

Her son Cam, 29, is one of three men killed in the last five months in hunting incidents that firearms experts say could have been avoided.

Mountain Safety Council figures show there were 20 hunting-related deaths and 81 injuries between 2002 and 2011. In the previous decade, 31 people died and 76 were injured.

Aucklander Cam was shot and killed by another hunter in Aorangi Forest Park in Wairarapa on April 7. Police are still investigating.

Mrs McDonald says the loss of her son has been unbelievably hard. Now she is angry the penalties that may face the shooter are too weak.

"I think he needs to go away for a very long time, because we're not going to see a wedding, we're not going to see grandchildren."

Police Minister Anne Tolley said she was concerned at any hunting deaths. "They are tragic, and one is too many."

She appeared to rule out new legislation, saying the Arms Act "does its job" and the vast majority of hunters were responsible.

"However, a minority of hunters need to get the message that safety is paramount, they should always identify their target, and that alcohol and drugs have no place among people with firearms."

The maximum penalty for careless use of a firearm is three years in prison or a fine of up to $4000, and the maximum penalty for manslaughter is life in prison.

"A jail term for manslaughter should be a strong deterrent, but this minority should never put themselves in that position in the first place," Mrs Tolley said.

Mrs McDonald says that's not enough. If charged, the person who shot her son might be out of prison inside a year, like Andrew Mears, the deer hunter who shot teacher Rosemary Ives.

"There's got to be a penalty between manslaughter and careless use of a firearm causing death. There's got to be something stronger," she says.

A Bill before Parliament would establish a Game Animal Council that could recommend regulatory changes to promote hunting safety.

Associate Conservation Minister Peter Dunne, who is behind the Game Animal Council Bill, says it would take a lead role in safety issues and build on the work already done by bodies such as the independent Mountain Safety Council.

Mrs McDonald is also calling for tougher firearm licensing requirements and mandatory practical firearms exams.

Mr Dunne says there is "a strong case" for mandatory safety courses or wearing high-visibility jackets, but accepts that even these changes wouldn't prevent tragedies.

"The current level is far too high. The sad truth is you can't legislate against irresponsible human behaviour. I'm not saying that as an excuse, I'm just saying there will be instances from time to time. But there are far too many of them at the moment."
The bill would expand opportunities for hunting, but Mr Dunne rejects the suggestion that would create more opportunity for risk.

"I think, in fact, quite the opposite. I think it creates the potential to better control the environment and to make it a safer one for hunters and anyone who's using the great outdoors."

Green Party MP Kevin Hague doubts the Game Animal Council would be the right vehicle for change and says a separate process is needed.

"What we have to say is that the current approaches are not working.

" I think we should certainly be looking seriously at either legislative or regulatory control to require safety measures to be taken, in the same way that people wear bike helmets or health and safety standards apply in workplaces."

Deer stalking is the deadliest form of hunting, with 21 deaths in the past 20 years. There were three duck hunting deaths and other forms of the sport - including possum, rabbit and pig hunting - cost 13 lives.

Non-hunting firearms incidents, resulting from the likes of gun cleaning, caused six deaths.

And for every highly-publicised hunting death, there are dozens of injuries.

ACC figures show there were 117 accepted claims for shooting injuries during recreational hunting, costing almost $1.5 million from July 1, 2000, to June 30, 2011.

Senior Fish and Game officer Matthew McDougall said duck hunting incidents tended to be the result of firearms mishaps and deer hunting incidents are caused by target mis-identification.

Duck hunters were often huddled in a maimai for hours on end, and some passed the time by drinking, which was never a good idea in combination with guns and adrenaline.
Mr McDougall said he had felt threatened on the job only twice, both times when hunters were drunk, but said the safety message appeared to be getting through.

"When I first started this job more than 20 years ago you used to go round the maimais and everybody was drunk. I mean, they'd be there with their bacon and egg pie and their bottle of whisky or whatever.

"But since drink-drive campaigns came in we've seen a huge change in attitude towards drinking and hunting and now it's very unusual to see someone with a drink in the maimais."

But Steve, an experienced hunter from Oamaru who spoke on the condition his last name wasn't used, says drinking is still a part of duck hunting culture.

"Opening of duck season has got to be the most hideously operated thing I've ever seen in my life. I come from overseas and alcohol and firearms are a no-no but here, if you go to any maimai of your choosing, I can guarantee you there are bottles of whisky, cases of beer. Everybody gets totally blottoed and shoots ducks."

The law says anyone who commits a firearms offence while so under the influence of alcohol they are "incapable of having proper control of the firearm" can be imprisoned for up to three months or fined $3000. It does not set a breath-alcohol limit.

Department of Conservation national hunting manager Ian Cooksley says deer hunters were often killed or injured as a result of a phenomenon known as "stag fever".

"You've spent the past 10 months thinking about this, you've paid quite a bit of money for a rifle and you've just heard a stag that's roaring down in the gully," he said.

"It's a big animal and you softly slide the bullet up the breech because you don't want it to hear the noise.

"And it's getting closer and closer and you slide the bolt a bit further in so it's on its last click just before you pull it down.

"You're on a knife-edge. Is it going to come over here? Is it going there? Am I going to get a shot at it? And all of a sudden it's in the sights and 'boom' you shoot. What we all want to see is it's a 12-point stag, what we don't want to see is it's another hunter who was blasting on a piece of pipe (imitating a deer call)."

Dougal Fyfe, 23, was shot by good friend Reuben Burke near Wanaka in December after being mistaken for a deer. Burke has pleaded guilty to careless use of a firearm and will be sentenced later this month.

Dougal's uncle, Finlay Gilmour, said the group had been spotlighting for rabbits from the back of a truck when they followed a deer on foot.

"They got separated and (Reuben) mis-identified the target. It was a case of shooting at something because, for whatever reason, you're hyped-up, you're just going too fast.

"I think it's clearly a very dangerous activity. I don't know ... whether there's anything that can be done about it: you're out there with a gun that can kill, all you've got to do is make a mistake. How do humans not make mistakes?"

Mr Gilmour says he would welcome any review of hunting legislation that could avert future tragedies.

Mountain Safety Council firearms expert Mike Spray is convinced that if hunters followed the seven basic rules of firearms safety there would be no injuries or deaths.

"But we should put this into perspective - you're looking at 100 incidents in the last 10 years, which is about 10 a year. You're talking an average 40,000 deer hunters shooting an average of seven days, which is 280,000 hunting days.

"You're talking about 40,000 duck shooting licences, that's not even including the back-of-the-farm hunters shooting rabbits and possums," he says.

Firearms safety
1. Treat every firearm as loaded. Pass or accept only an open or unloaded firearm.
2. Always point firearms in a safe direction.
3. Load a firearm only when ready to fire.
4. Identify your target beyond all doubt.
5. Check your firing zone.
6. Store firearms and ammunition safely and separately.
7. Avoid alcohol or drugs when handling firearms.

- APNZ

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