As a rule, people develop better judgment as they mature. Education can speed up this process, however. In fact, 2009 turkey-hunting incident statistics provide strong evidence that education has helped young hunters surpass their elders' judgment.
The low point for turkey-hunting safety in Missouri was 1986, two years before hunter education became mandatory. That year, 31 people suffered gunshot wounds in spring turkey hunting incidents. Two of them died.
From 1985 through 1988, Missouri averaged 23 spring turkey-hunting incidents per year. Since then, however, the number of firearms-related spring turkey hunting incidents has decreased dramatically. In the past five years, the average has been 4.8 incidents per season. Missouri's safest spring turkey-hunting season was 2007, when only two incidents -- neither fatal -- marred the spring hunt. The shooter in one of those incidents was 39 years old. The other was 61.
"It isn't merely coincidence that we have seen a steady decrease in hunting injuries and deaths since the advent of mandatory hunter education," said Tony Legg, hunter education coordinator for the Missouri Department of Conservation. "The decline in the number of injuries is a direct reflection of the increasing number of hunters who have been through formal safety training. You can also see the difference in the number of incidents involving people who have not received hunter education."
In 2009, the Conservation Department recorded four spring turkey-hunting incidents. Three of those incidents involved hunters who were born before Jan. 1, 1967 and therefore exempt from Missouri's hunter education requirement. None of the three had taken hunter education training.
In one of last year's incidents, a 53-year-old hunter fired when he saw what he mistakenly thought was a turkey 21 to 30 yards away. In fact, the movement was a friend turning to take a shot at a turkey.
Last year a 70-year-old hunter shot his son, who was using a shaker-type gobble call to attract a turkey for his own son. The shooter mistook the motion of the call for a turkey beard blowing in the wind. The incident report said the shooter knew the other two were in the area and was trying to show them up by shooting the turkey out from under them.
"If you need proof that age is no guarantee of good judgment, this is it," said Legg. "If this grandfather could commit such a potentially disastrous judgment error, anyone can. Everyone might have been spared a lot of emotional and physical pain if the grandpa had been through hunter education."
The final 2009 spring turkey-hunting incident, and the only fatality, occurred when a 56-year-old hunter tried to pull a loaded shotgun from the seat of his vehicle by the barrel. The trigger caught on something and the gun discharged, striking him in the chest.
"Incidents like that are preventable," said Legg. "The proof is in the last 20 years' hunting incident statistics. Most of them are being prevented. The best thing older hunters can do for themselves and their families is to attend a hunter-education course."
Hunter education classes are available throughout the state.
Another way to gain the benefits of hunter education is to visit www.mdc.mo.gov/17844, and review hunter-education course material there. You can check your mastery of the subject by taking the accompanying chapter reviews and pre-tests.
Last year's spring turkey hunting incidents are typical in that most involved victims who were mistaken for game.
Legg said confusing an adult human weighing 150 pounds or more with a 20-pound turkey is much easier than it seems.
To begin with, turkey hunters go out of their way to look like anything but a human, wearing camouflage to blend in with their surroundings.
Legg said one thing hunters can do to avoid becoming a victim is to wear hunter orange when moving between hunting spots.