Ah, hunting. The crisp fall air. Getting back to nature. The thrill of the chase.
And sometimes: getting shot accidentally.
While no one goes out to the woods with the intention of ending up on the wrong end of a piece of errant lead, hunting firearms accidents — though rare — happen every year in Minnesota, according to Minnesota Department of Natural Resources data.
Whenever local law enforcement learns about a wound incurred by a gunshot while hunting or shooting, the agency is required to investigate and report it to the DNR.
So far this year, the DNR has collected four such reports. In one, a man shot a coyote, picked it up and got it into his car, then put his gun in his lap and shot himself. In another, a 12-year-old shot at a gopher in a field, a round ricocheted off a rock and hit a nine-year-old in the thigh, arm and forehead. Then there was the man in a ground blind hunting waterfowl who grabbed his gun, pulled the trigger and shot himself in the toe. Also in bird hunting: a hunter fired a shotgun at a duck but didn’t realize there was a person in the line of fire, who was hit in the nose with birdshot.
But increased safety over the years has driven the annual number of incidents down over time, DNR officials say, from around three-to-five per 10,000 hunting licenses issued some years in the ’60s and ’70s to 0.2 or fewer per 10,000 licenses in recent years.
Captain Jon Paurus, who coordinates education for the DNR, says a series of state laws are responsible for fewer hunting-related injuries.
In 1986, Minnesota passed a law requiring hunters to wear blaze orange or red above the waist and on any hats worn during firearm deer season. In later years, red was dropped, and recently, blaze pink was added as a permissible color. The rules have since been expanded to other hunters.
In 1991, the legislature passed a law requiring people to get a firearms safety certificate in order to get a hunting license, making the certificate optional for anyone born before 1980. That entails either taking the class online in-person.
But while the number of gun-related hunting accidents is down, they still happen. In the last decade, Minnesota has averaged 16 total incidents — about two of them fatal — per year. For example:
In 2014, two shooters saw a silhouette on a hill that looked like a deer. It wasn’t a deer. The two shot a person, who died.
In 2016, a dog stepped on a shotgun, causing shots to ricochet off a boat and hit a 15-year-old girl in her hand and knee.
When a 14-year-old hunter shot toward a duck last year, some of the birdshot ricocheted off the water and hit another person in the eye.
Also last year, a hunter shot into the woods in an attempt to scare a deer, and shot and killed someone driving on a trail.
“The three most common factors with these incidents is usually careless handling, not knowing the safe zone of fire, and not knowing what’s beyond the target they’re shooting at,” Paurus said.
He reminds anyone going through firearm safety classes or handling guns to treat each and every one as if it’s loaded.
“Quite often they forget it’s loaded, or they get complacent and forget to check,” he said.
About 45 percent of the 53 reported incidents between 2014 and 2019 were self-inflicted.
There’s no formal reports on what Paurus says is one of the most common hunting-related injuries: falls from tree stands during deer season.
“It’s a strong tradition in our state, and people will tack on a couple boards to a tree and climb up,” he said, often using the boards years in a row without checking their integrity.
“Unless the firearm was discharged when they fell out of a tree stand (like the man who shot himself in the foot while he climbed out of a tree stand in 2014), that’s not generally going to be reported,” he said.
Still, hunting remains one of the safer recreational activities to participate in, Paurus said.
“It’s a great opportunity, especially in this state that we live in, to get out and enjoy just being out in nature,” he said.