My youngest son is sitting attentively, engrossed in tales of rendezvous and black powder shooting. He is the last of my children to attend one of South Dakota’s mandatory hunter safety courses for young hunters. He nudges me with his shoulder often to ask me a question or to give me a puzzled look as he strives to understand some point of firearms safety. At the table behind me sit two young fathers. I took one of them, Mark Braun, hunting thirty years ago when he was a little boy and now he has sons of his own and one, Jake, is here with him tonight.
With Mark years ago and with my other two children over the last decade, I was so excited to share my love of hunting, but this year, with this last son, I feel melancholy. The generation that raised me has begun to pass. Three times this spring I have said goodbye to the parent of a close friend and they have asked me for advice as if my own father’s passing a year ago has given me special insight. I share what I have learned, but it is little and I’m still too new to being orphaned.
I want these young people to share my passion for the environment that they too will pass on. The time I spent with my father in the woods was too little but I can remember each trip, each laugh, each time we got down on hands and knees to follow a blood trail.
Dad loved tracking. He loved solving puzzles. He used to mystify me when I would snarl my fishing reels because he took such great pleasure in unwinding the snarl. I so wanted him to use his knife and cut through the mess and get me back on the water as quick as possible and he so wanted to teach me to avoid creating the mess in the first place. He took the same joy in unwinding a blood trail. I would cast broadly hoping to stumble on a great pool of blood. He would sit in one spot searching for pin pricks of blood and slowly follow those invariably to his quarry. He wanted to show me rather than tell that doing things right, even if it required painstaking effort, was a reward in itself and the best way to ensure success.
South Dakota’s Hunter Safety program uses those same principles. Teaching safety right takes time and repetition. Students and their parents show up and spend hours discussing and practicing firearm safety. We returned for three days and the classes’ attitude changed remarkably during that time. I came into the class tired after a long school year and left rejuvenated. Educating young people on firearms and hunter safety has had a lifesaving impact on our nation’s youth.
Since I started hunting, the number of deaths associated with firearm accidents has declined 80%. At the same time the number of people in the county has doubled and the number of firearms has more than tripled. The impact that hunting safety instructors can have on young lives was driven home by a final statistic from the NRA. The accidental death rate of firearms among children has declined 90% during my lifetime.
For every parent who attended with their kids, it was an investment in safety and peace of mind. Hunter safety programs and their instructors save lives.