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Tragedy triggers debate

12/21/2009

Hunters who want to ensure their sport is still around when they are not would be glad to know of a trend across the nation to give younger and younger kids access to the sport. The more kids who get a chance to walk the fields with a firearm, the more likely they will be life-long hunters, according to hunter advocate groups.

Wisconsin recently joined 29 other U.S. states to lower barriers to young hunters.

But some states are bucking that trend.

"Washington is a state we're watching," said Greg R. Lawson, director of communication for the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance, a group that encourages legislatures to decrease minimum hunting ages.

In the rotunda in Olympia, on blog sites and in Washington Trails Association newsletters, there is a cry for raising the age a hunter can hunt alone — even one who has gone through the state's hunter education course. Currently in Washington, any young hunter who has passed the course can hunt alone. One bill would raise the age to 13, the other to 16.

"We support a minimum age of 16 years to hunt alone," said Elizabeth Lunney, executive director of Washington Trails Associations. "The woods are big enough for all of us, but hunters must be educated first."
The initiative has its roots in a tragic event last year when a 14-year-old boy, hunting with his older brother in the Cascades north of Seattle, mistakenly thought a hiker stopped on a trail and bent over her pack was a black bear

The boy said he and his brother watched the target through their scopes and determined it was a bear before he pulled the trigger, according to police reports.

Tyler J. Kales, 14, was convicted of manslaughter in June 2009 and served a 30-day sentence in a juvenile detention facility. The boy is on probation for a year and must complete 120 hours of community service.
Tyler expressed remorse during the trial and sentencing.

"I can't imagine what they go through every day, how they feel," said Kales, regarding hiker Pamela Amli's family as reported by KIRO TV. "All I want to say is how sorry I am, and I hope they can forgive me."
There's been no closure in the Legislature. The issue is simmering.

"We're meeting with supporters now to see what approach we might take," said state Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles, the primary sponsor of the bill putting the minimum age to hunt alone at 16. Those under 16 would have to hunt with a licensed Washington hunter over 18 years.

Rep. Brian Blake, said 16 is too high. he wants to see the age set at 14.

"Young hunters are some of our safest hunters," said Blake who sponsored the House bill. He noted that older hunters, those 19-29 years, account for the most accidents in the fields.

Kohl-Welles admitted that a tragedy involving a young shooter "is not something that happens a lot."

"Still, I don't like the idea of a kid allowed to hunt without supervision. That's why I'm promoting this bill," said Kohl-Welles. "We don't want anything like that to happen. My husband hikes trails with our dog. It's alarming."

Lawson of the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance agreed that the Sauk Mountain shooting was nothing short of a tragedy.

And there's no debate that the boy broke several gun safety rules:
— Always be sure of your target and what's beyond
— Use binoculars or a spotting scope rather than a rifle scope to get a good look at a potential target.

Still, Lawson questioned whether an age restriction was the right move at this time.

"Any age minimums should be determined after a careful review of accident data rather than a knee-jerk reaction to tragedy," he said.