On Saturday, Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot a hunting companion in the face and torso while hunting quail in Texas. According to news reports, Harry Whittington had left the group to retrieve a downed quail when Cheney struck his friend with a shotgun blast while firing at a covey of birds. Was Cheney guilty of violating hunting etiquette?
Possibly—but Whittington almost certainly was. Quail hunters advance on their prey by walking alongside one another. Katharine Armstrong, who owns the land that Cheney was hunting on, says that the rule on her ranch is that hunters must move forward three abreast. The person on the right side should shoot to the right, the person in the center should shoot to the front, and the person to the left should shoot left. Accidents tend to happen when hunters stray from the appropriate shooting zone.
At the time Cheney pulled the trigger, Whittington was behind the group looking for a bird carcass. The vice president reportedly turned to shoot at a group of quail that had taken flight; by the time he shot, the birds were in the same line of fire as Whittington. In general, it's OK for hunters to turn and shoot if they detect prey behind them. But if Cheney knew that Whittington had stayed behind, he should have held his fire.
If Whittington left to retrieve a bird, though, he should have announced his whereabouts to the group. It is not clear whether Whittington told his companions he was leaving, but according to Armstrong he did not signal his intent to rejoin the group. If that's the case, Whittington violated a basic rule of hunting safety.
Hunters wear "blaze orange" (or "hunter orange") clothing to stand out from their surroundings and be noticed by other hunters. Even though Whittington was reportedly wearing a bright-colored vest, Cheney apparently did not see him.
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Explainer thanks Prof. Ronald Kaiser of Texas A&M University.