COLUMNIST SUGGESTS REVISTING ISSUE IN WAKE OF HUNTER-ED INSTRUCTORS’ DISMISSAL
by Leroy Ledeboer
When the news broke that the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife had decertified Clare Cranston, a volunteer hunter education instructor in the Tri-Cities with a whopping 46 years of service under his belt, it definitely caught Northwest sportsmens’ attention.
Original Spokane Spokesman-Review article: Long-time hunter ed instructors quit after state sides with parents; Tri-Cities Herald letters to the editor: Computers no substitute; Firm but fair; Outrageous action; Reprimand warranted; 13-page-long online discussion
Clare, after all, has not only spent huge amounts of his time and dollars to educate our youth on everything from hunter ethics to firearms safety, he’s also served as an integral part of other volunteer efforts, including a decade-long stint on the state’s Inland Fish Advisory Committee.
The issue: Although the Richland Rod & Gun Club had received only a handful of complaints in 53 years of running hunter education classes, last March three were submitted, perhaps the most serious that Clare had grabbed a 9-year-old lad and spoken harshly to him for inadvertently pointing a muzzleloader rifle at classmates.
The boy broke into tears.
“I was standing right behind him,” Cranston explains. “He’d done everything right until he turned and let the muzzle drop, directly at other students. If I could have grabbed his rifle, I would have, but that meant reaching over him. Instead, I took him by the shoulders and turned him around.”
Yes that weapon was unloaded at the time, but muzzle control is the No. 1 issue in firearm safety, and the students had been told that a single infraction meant they’d fail the class.
Maybe it was this fear of failing, maybe his instructor’s no-nonsense gruffness that brought on the tears, but in either case Cranston felt he’d done nothing inappropriate.
Firearms safety is paramount, he maintains, and that wasn’t about to change.
Apologies to the lad and his dad, plus going through sensitivity training would have saved Cranston’s certificate. The rest of his team of hunting educators was told they too had to go through that course.
Howard Gardner, the team leader who helped found the Tri-Cities program way back in 1957 and whom many consider this state’s most knowledgeable hunter education instructor, refused, stating it would be an admission of guilt, and he had done nothing wrong. He too was decertified.
Several other volunteers resigned in protest.
Unfortunately this incident could have a ripple effect across Washington. One Westside instructor told me, “I’m about ready to pull the plug, to decertify myself. I think the Department’s handling of this was totally wrong. Gun safety has to be absolute, and I personally would have no problem with grabbing a kid if he pointed his weapon at others. If I got a complaint about that or anything else I felt was the right action, I’d want the Department to have my back. If they don’t, then I don’t want to be part of this program anymore.”
AT 79, CRANSTON IS definitely old school, believes in discipline and doesn’t mince words. When it comes to hunter education, he totally rejects anything that smacks of today’s “feel good” approach.
And, like the rest of us old timers, Cranston cut his hunting teeth in a much different world, where hunter education was left to chance – the chance that Dad or an uncle had the knowledge, time and good sense to instill it.
Oh, it was a glorious world, all right, where 10-year-old buddies could grab their .22s or .410s and head into the wilds in pursuit of small game and varmints. Glorious, but its ugly downside was the occasional and perhaps inevitable gun mishap.
For Cranston that mishap came early, when a buddy shot himself in the chest with a .22.
“I’d loaned him one of my rifles and then stayed with him while my little brother ran for help,” he recalls. “Something like that really sticks with you, so yeah, I’m passionate about gun safety. I want to get the message out, to get it across that there aren’t any doovers. I stress that a rifle or shotgun is a tool, one that can give you a lifetime of pleasure but only if you use it correctly 100 percent of the time. There’s no margin for error.”
The three complaints leveled at Cranston and his cohorts all involved their handling of very young children, 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds. Maybe that was coincidence, but it gave me a flashback to an article I did several years ago and discovered that Washington has no minimum age requirement for hunting. Take the course, get passing grades, and you’re in – even at 5, 6 or 7.
Our Northwest neighbors all have some restrictions in place. Oregon doesn’t allow big game hunting before 11. Idaho allows 10-year-olds to hunt upland birds, water- fowl and small game, 12-year-olds to get big game tags. Until they turn 18, adult supervision\ is mandated. In Montana 12 is the threshold for beginners.
When I researched that article, a WDFW spokesman told me that the Hunter Education Program’s three separate areas – knowledge, attitude and skill – act as a safety net, weeding out most of the younger kids, but if an exceptional 8-year-old passes all three, then he or she deserves a license.
However, after talking to several prominent hunter education instructors and other sportsmen, I see at least a couple of flaws in this argument. For starters, it throws that entire weeding-out burden on the shoulders of our volunteer instructors.
“It’s just wrong,” states Ron Poppe, a longtime instructor now in charge of the Wenatchee-area program. “I totally disagree with having real young kids out there. Their stature isn’t suitable for handling a big-game rifle, even a youth model, and they simply don’t have the concentration to stay alert to what they’re doing. But if we ease up and certify them, they can get a big game tag.
“Too many parents bring in kids that are way too young, too immature, and when they fail, Mom or Dad just can’t accept it. It happens every class. Then the instructor comes out the bad guy. We get blamed for an 8- or 9-year-old’s failure when they shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
“In Hunter Ed, we have so many vital concepts to get across such as when dealing with ammo, don’t trust anyone. If someone hands you fresh ammo, even if it’s your Dad or Mom, check it out. Make sure it’s right for your weapon.
“And gun control. On actual hunts situations are bound to arise. Sooner or later you will trip and fall down. No major problem as long as you handle your weapon properly and keep its barrel pointed in a safe direction. Getting these things across to any youngster is a real challenge. If they’re too young, too immature, it’s impossible.
“Even a very bright youngster can have major lapses. I had to flunk a 9-year-old who scored 74 out of 75 on the written exam – better than most adults who come through our program. Then in the field test he pointed his weapon right at me, so we had to fail him. That’s so difficult to explain. You might change the position of your gun 100 times during an outing and you can never make that mistake. This boy did so many things right, but he was young, so had mental lapses.
“I’d like to see a minimum age of at least 12, maybe even 13,” Poppe says. Ron Bruno, longtime president of the Wenatchee Sportsmen’s Association, is equally adamant.
“I was at one class where a 5-year-old was enrolled,” he recalls. “The kid sat on his dad’s lap, sucked his thumb and eventually fell asleep. Yet the instructor had no choice but to let him participate.
“And no matter what their age, their teachers have to be strict. Remember, these will be our fellow hunters, carrying weapons into the fields we hunt. They have to know what’s right and what’s wrong, and they have to be capable. Unless a kid is being physically hurt, there’s no such thing as too strict.”
ONE ARGUMENT AGAINST an age requirement has been that in this age of video games and multitude of other distractions, we have to get our kids involved early or we won’t get them at all. They’ll turn to other pursuits, and this national trend of fewer hunters taking to the fields each decade will only get worse.
But how many youngsters are we going to hook on the sport if their first shot at hunter education results in failure?
Unless we’re prepared to drastically lower our standards, that’s exactly what’s going to continue to happen.
And isn’t there value in deferred gratification?
Sans gun, let that avid 8- or 9-year-old join dad in the duck blinds or on his deer stands for a couple of seasons, enjoying the moment and getting valuable early tutoring. That first year with his own weapon will be so much sweeter.
Then there’s that “Let’s not create a one size fits all rule” theory, thus penalizing the truly exceptional 9-year-old. Let the parents have a real voice in when their kids are ready.
OK, but how many moms and dads can accurately judge their sons’ and daughters’ strengths and weaknesses? Nothing so bad about that. In fact, seeing our kids in a positive light might be part of being a good parent. Throw grandparents into this mix and those rose-colored glasses get a whole lot rosier. I watch my 10-month-old great-grandson totter around on his chubby little legs and envision him toting his first 20-gauge.
No, sometimes we just don’t get to choose. Sometimes, for the general good, we have to set age restrictions without fretting about exceptional cases. For example, a farmer friend of mine had his two strapping sons out in his fields handling everything from tractors and pickups to big dual-axle grain trucks before their 12th birthdays. By 14 those lads were far more competent than most 16- and 17-year-olds who make it through drivers ed.
Yet we make no exceptions. No one gets a drivers’ licenses before that arbitrary 16th birthday. It’s a good rule. It makes our highways just a little safer. Don’t our hunting fields deserve the same respect? NS