Hunting today is remarkably safe and has been getting increasingly safer. Wisconsin recorded 264 Negligent Discharge (ND) incidents in 1966, but only 12 in 2021, a 95% decline. That means the state went from 44 NDs per 100,000 hunters in 1966 to 0.15 per 100,000 in the past three years.

Wisconsin made hunter education mandatory for people born in 1973 and later and for all hunters seeking to hunt outside the state. By 1985 the rate of NDs was 12 per 100,000 hunters, dropping to 7 per 100,000 in 2000. Wisconsin’s 2019 gun Deer Season had 564,664 licensed deer hunters with a total of four reported shootings. Three of these injuries were negligent discharges where the hunter injured himself, and one involved a hand injury where a hunter’s negligent discharge injured a member of his hunting party. This puts the injury ratio at 1:141,166, or 0.0007%. 99.9993% of Wisconsin’s hunters in 71 counties took to the field and woods with loaded firearms in pursuit of deer for nine days without incident.

By contrast, golf routinely suffers 180 injuries per 100,000 golfers.

Data compiled by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources since 2007 show that older hunters cause most NDs throughout Wisconsin’s hunting seasons. It’s not age at issue, it’s the fact that these older hunters either don’t attend hunter education or other firearm safety/training courses or have a very large lapse of education.

Over the 14 most recent hunting seasons, hunters 17 and younger typically caused less than 20% of the NDs. According to the DNR’s 2021 hunter-education report (https://widnr.widen.net/s/ddqphtxfv9/he_annual-report_2021), 67% of the 2021 NDs were 41 or older. More specifically, 42% were 61 or older, 8% were 51 to 60, and 17% were 41 to 50.

The patterns are fairly consistent. The DNR’s 2007 report showed hunters 40 and older caused 66% of the 27 hunting incidents. Of those, the riskiest group was 40- to 49-year-olds, with 30% of the NDs; followed by 50- to 59-year-olds, 22%, and 60 and older, 14%. Five years later, the DNR reported 28 NDs during the 2012 fall hunts, with hunters 40 and older causing 58% of the incidents. And five years after that, the DNR reported 22 NDs, with hunters 40 and older causing 55% of the NDs in 2017.

Matt O’Brien, the DNR’s deputy chief warden, said 33% of NDs in 2021 were by hunters that weren’t required to attend the state’s hunter education course and never took it, which has been mandatory for everyone born since 1973. That means hunters now 50 and older still don’t have to take the program, which might help explain why the average age of ND incidents in 2021’s hunting incidents was 51. And for hunters who did take the course but had an ND incident, the average time lapse between their education and the ND was 20 years.

O’Brien said it’s grown harder for the DNR to connect with older hunters, and harder yet to not make them feel persecuted by suggesting remedial training.

“The challenge is how best can we reach hunters in that age group,” O’Brien said. “With all the options on the internet, from social media to podcasts, we can’t just create one public-service ad, play it on local radio stations, and assume we’re reaching 90% of our hunters. And even if we could, not everyone will believe they’re complacent about firearms safety. Or they might take it personally and resent the message. In some ways, it’s like telling senior citizens they have to requalify for their driver’s license. It’s not an easy conversation.”

Education remains vital. Since launching its training program in 1967, Wisconsin has fielded over 16,700 volunteer instructors over the past 55 years. O’Brien is concerned, however, by steady declines in instructor numbers, which fell 19% in 2021 (3,200 to 2,600); and 35% from 2012 to 2021 (4,000 instructors to 2,600).

Read the full article by Patrick Durkin