By Paula Moore
In just one week recently, a 7-year-old boy was fatally shot by his 10-year-old brother as they were hunting deer with their father in Virginia and a 14-year-old was shot and killed during a squirrel-hunting trip in Wisconsin. Another teen was flown to the hospital after he was shot in the leg while deer hunting in West Virginia. Most people wouldn’t dream of handing a child a loaded gun and hoping for the best. Yet that seems to be exactly what some parents are doing when they encourage their children to hunt.
In an effort to revive this dying blood sport, states across the country are loosening hunting restrictions and putting loaded weapons into younger and younger hands. Last year, lawmakers in Wisconsin lowered the state’s hunting age from 12 to 10. Since 2004, more than a dozen other states have also changed their laws to allow younger children to hunt. In Texas, children as young as 9 can hunt by themselves. Many states do not even have a minimum hunting age.
But that doesn’t mean that parents should go along with it. Teaching children how to kill is inherently dangerous—and not just to Bambi and his friends.
In 2008, the Tulsa World in Oklahoma (a state with no minimum hunting age) analyzed reports compiled by the International Hunter Education Association of hunting-related injuries and fatalities. Of the more than 6,650 hunting accidents included in the group’s database since 1994, nearly 35 percent involved hunters who were 21 years old or younger. An analysis by Milwaukee’s Journal Sentinel found that young hunters were more than twice as likely to cause accidents as other hunters.
Psychologists and pediatricians warn that children are simply not mature enough to safely handle firearms, and several recent incidents seem to confirm this. In October, a 13-year-old boy accidentally shot and killed his father while they were squirrel hunting in Louisiana. Another squirrel-hunting trip, this one in Illinois, turned tragic when a 14-year-old shot and killed his 17-year-old friend. In April, an Ohio man was fatally shot by his 15-year-old son during a kids-only turkey hunt.
It’s almost impossible to imagine the devastating toll that such incidents will take on the young people involved as they are forced to spend the rest of their lives thinking about that split second when they accidentally killed a friend or loved one.
While these were clearly accidents, some young hunters have deliberately taken aim at other human beings. Numerous school shootings have generated headlines and caused enormous heartbreak, and in most cases, the student shooters were hunters. Samuel Hengel, the 15-year-old Wisconsin high school student who shot himself after holding classmates and a teacher hostage in November, enjoyed hunting and fishing. In 2009, an 11-year-old Pennsylvania boy allegedly shot and killed his father’s pregnant fiancée—apparently with the same youth-model 20-gauge shotgun that he had used to win a turkey shoot the week before.
Hunters will object, of course: Not every child who is taught to stalk and kill animals will stalk and kill a human being. But every person—regardless of age—who picks up a gun, aims it at another living being and fires must deaden a piece of his or her heart. The ultimate lesson of every hunting trip is that life is not valuable.
Many of the children involved in tragic hunting accidents are too young to have driven themselves to the hunting site. All are too young to legally drink. So why do we think that they are mature enough and responsible enough to be given a gun and taught how to kill? It’s time to stop this madness.
Paula Moore is a research specialist for The PETA Foundation.