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Monday, February 13, 2006

Not a Laughing Matter

I'm going to out something from my childhood this morning: I grew up in West Virginia, and I used to go hunting with my dad as a kid. I never actually shot any animals -- I was too much of a softie, and spent my time in the woods with my dad feeding peanuts to the chipmunks on the other side of the ridge from where he was hunting or sitting with him and whispering on occasion about woods lore and watching the deer trail in front of us for a big buck.

But I've always been a fairly decent shot -- my last NRA certification rating was 99% the last time I thought about qualifying myself for a conceal carry permit when I was receiving a threat or two as a prosecutor -- a problem I, thankfully, don't have to deal with on a daily basis any longer.

I've been around guns my whole life, going with my dad to adjust his scope before he went out for the week, and fire off a few rounds of target practice at a local quarry or at the target range at a local gun shop. My whole family has hunted for generations -- and gun safety was drilled into me from the time I was very small.

As was a strong conservation ethic, as in you don't just shoot something for the hell of it, but only for what you need to eat for your family. Period. So I have a substantial distaste for people who indiscriminately shoot an animal that was cage-raised for the sole purpose of allowing someone to just go out and blast the hell out of it as a recreational sport. That's just lazy and wrong -- and it's cheating in my book.

One of the first things my dad taught me was how to move around in the woods or in a field to maximize my safety. Aside from the blaze orange requirements today for visual safety, you stay behind the person with the gun, you keep your muzzle pointed away from people and dogs who are your companion animals (and reports are that they were using dogs to flush out the birds, so guns would have been pointed skyward to minimize potential accidents for the dogs), and you never, never, NEVER squeeze off a round without first ascertaining the entire visual in front of where you will be shooting, within the designated path of your particular firearm (different guns have different ranges and shot patterns, depending on caliber and load) -- in other words, look very carefully before you ever pull the trigger.

That Mr. Whittington was in the line of sight for Dick Cheney is regrettable. But no matter whether Whittington walked into the line of sight or whether Cheney turned to shoot at quail and placed Whittington within his line (which is a more likely hunting scenario, given that you generally try to walk up on a hunting party from behind if at all possible if you are at all experienced, to minimize possible accidents), it is the hunter's responsibility at all times to be secure in what he is seeing before he ever pulls the trigger. Period.

And no amount of trying to spin this to a press corps who has never fired a shotgun takes away from the fact that the shooter always has the obligation to ensure safety before pulling the trigger. ALWAYS.

Not doing so as a kid would have gotten me a serious butt whipping and worse. My dad was very, very serious about it, having known idiots who went out in the woods and caused just this sort of accident. You never, ever shoot without looking very carefully first. Cardinal rule of gun safety number one.

The narrative on the Cheney shooting incident goes as follows:

Cheney shoots hunting companion with a 28-gauge shotgun, at about 30 yards.
Mr. Whittington was about 30 yards from the vice president when the shooting occurred, Ms. Armstrong said. Altogether, there were five people in the group. Ms. Armstrong declined to identify the other hunters.
Well, that's interesting. A 28-gauge shotgun is a fairly specialized firearm. My dad called it a "ladies gun" when I learned to shoot as a kid -- it was the first gun I ever took out for target practice at the quarry. It shoots a fairly small pattern, compared to the spread you get from a 12-gauge, say, so the buckshot comes out in a fairly concentrated pattern, and there is little to no recoil -- which means you don't get that smack into your shoulder when the gun rebounds from the pressure of the shot like you would with a higher-gauge (stronger) shot. At least, that's what I remembered (it's been a while since I was a kid and went target shooting with my dad), so I did a little research and...yep, I remembered correctly.
Shotgun writer and wingshooter Bob Brister agrees that dropping down in gauge size can make the hunting experience more enjoyable, when the game and situation allow it. Brister, whose detached retinas don’t take kindly to recoil, says that most upland-bird shooting is more pleasurable and just as effective when using smaller gauges, such as the 28. “It’s not how much shot you throw up in the air,” Brister notes, “it’s where the shot goes that’s important. It’s not hard to understand that you’ll shoot better if you’re not being punished, so it makes sense to match the gauge to the game.”

Unlike most other gauges, the 28-gauge shotshell is available in only the 2 3/4-inch length. Though there are a few heavy field loads in this gauge that contain 7/8 to 1 ounce, standard ammunition is loaded with 3/4 ounce of shot. This is 1/4 ounce less shot than a 20-gauge shell and 3/8 ounce less than a standard 12-gauge shell of the same length. With the reduced powder load needed to drive the smaller shotcharge, the 28 is a much sweeter-shooting round than its two larger stablemates. Surprisingly, it also tends to pattern very efficiently. In fact, as far out as 35 yards, the 28 puts as much of its shot payload (on a percentage basis) into a 30-inch patterning circle as the 12 and 20 gauge. That’s a long of bang without a lot of buck.
Since Ms. Armstrong so helpfully points out that Mr. Whittington was within about 30 yards of the Veep, that sounds like a fairly concentrated blast area to me. Which explains why he had injuries to his face, neck and chest from the shot. And why he's been in the ICU -- since Saturday.

Katherine Armstrong told the WaPo that the 28-gauge has a "smaller shot pattern." What she meant to say, I'm sure, is that the shot pattern is "more concentrated" - meaning that the pellets stay in a small circumferance as they move forward, rather than rapidly spreading outward in a larger pattern like you get with a 12-gauge.

Which means that at close range, a 28-gauge can do some serious damage. And at 30 yards, give or take, it explains why the blast pattern on Mr. Whittington was limited to face/neck/chest.

Also, a 28-gauge is used pretty much exclusively for small birds. And because of its lack of recoil, it would make sense that the Veep, with his heart and other health issues, would want to minimize any shocks to his system (so to speak). In my family, we just have "the talk" with the member of the family who ought not touch a shotgun any more. Guess it doesn't work that way in the Cheney family -- much to the Whittington family's dismay, I'm sure.

Also, Armstrong said:
Whittington "came up from behind the vice president and the other hunter and didn't signal them or indicate to them or announce himself," Armstrong said, according to the Associated Press. (emphasis mine)
Well, now this is just assanine. Quail are jumpy little birds at the best of times, and you don't shout out "Hey guys, I'm coming up behind you." when your hunting buddies are closing in on their quarry. That will get you a smack upside the head.

Cheney's crack medical team staunches the bleeding until ambulance can get to the Armstrong ranch to take victim to the hospital.
She told reporters that the small shotgun pellets "broke the skin" and that the blast "knocked him silly. But he was fine. He was talking. His eyes were open. It didn't get in his eyes or anything like that."

"Fortunately, the vice president has got a lot of medical people around him and so they were right there and probably more cautious than we would have been," she said. "The vice president has got an ambulance on call, so the ambulance came."
Well, this explains why Ms. Armstrong has been silenced now by the Cheney PR team -- nothing like reminding the public that Cheney has an ambulance always on call, is there?

And call me crazy, but a blast from a 28-gauge shotgun that puts you in the ICU isn't something that's just a surface scrape or anything. It hurts like hell. And no amount of calling it a "spray" or "being peppered" or whatever takes away from the fact that: this man was shot, at close range, by the Vice President of the United States, who then told no one in the American public -- and no one else did either, including the local police -- for 22 hours.

Something is weird about this. I can't put my finger on what it is, and I'm awaiting a read of whatever police report gets released, but the whole narrative is odd. And reeks of covering for something.

Maybe it's just covering for the fact that Dick swung around and fired without looking. Hell, I'd be embarassed, too, if I was that idiotic. But something about this stinks...and I'm putting together a list of questions on the legal aspects and other areas for later. If anyone else has some experience with this sort of thing, please chime in -- I'll be interested to see if the NRA really walks all their gun safety talk on this one. (btw, that's Wayne LaPierre of the NRA handing Cheney a gun in the picture above. It's not a 28-gauge, but it sure is a purty picture, isn't it?)

It may be amusing to snicker at the VP's poor choices in this, but gun safety is no joke. Neither is having the Veep be treated differently than any other guy who might be involved in a hunting accident. If any Texans are reading, I'd be interested in your take on this as well. Texas gun laws are...erm...pretty loose, so what goes here in terms of an investigation and requirements likely doesn't apply there. I'm doing some legal research on this and reaching out to contacts, but I'd love to hear some thoughts from our Texas readers on all of this.

Taylor has more here and here. Sean-Paul has more here. Crooks and Liars has more here.