WASHINGTON (AP) ?” Vice President Dick Cheney apparently broke the No. 1 rule of hunting: Be sure of what you’re shooting at. He also violated Texas game law by failing to buy a hunting stamp.
Cheney wounded fellow hunter Harry Whittington in the face, neck and chest Saturday, apparently because he didn’t see Whittington approaching as he fired on a covey of quail in Texas.
Hunting safety experts interviewed Monday agreed it would have been a good idea for Whittington to announce himself – something he apparently didn’t do, according to a witness. But they stressed that the shooter is responsible for avoiding other people.
"It’s incumbent upon the shooter to assess the situation and make sure it’s a safe shot," said Mark Birkhauser, president-elect of the International Hunter Education Association and hunter education coordinator in New Mexico. "Once you squeeze that trigger, you can’t bring that shot back."
The Parks and Wildlife Department said Cheney and Whittington will be given warning citations for violating game law by not having an upland game bird stamp, a requirement that went into effect in September. Cheney had a $125 nonresident hunting license, the vice president’s office said Monday night in a statement, and has sent a $7 check to cover the cost of the stamp.
Cheney, an experienced hunter, has not commented publicly about the accident. He avoided reporters by leaving an Oval Office meeting with United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan before the press was escorted in.
President Bush was told about Cheney’s involvement in the accident shortly before 8 p.m. Saturday – about an hour after it occurred – but the White House did not disclose the accident until Sunday afternoon, and then only in response to press questions. Press secretary Scott McClellan said he did not know until Sunday morning that Cheney had shot someone.
Facing a press corps upset that news had been withheld, McClellan said, "I think you can always look back at these issues and look at how to do a better job."
Katharine Armstrong, the owner of the ranch where the shooting occurred, said she told Cheney on Sunday morning that she was going to inform the local paper, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. She said he agreed, and the newspaper reported it on its web site Sunday afternoon.
Secret Service spokesman Eric Zahren said that about an hour after Cheney shot Whittington, the head of the Secret Service’s local office called the Kenedy County sheriff to report the accident. "They made arrangements at the sheriff’s request to have deputies come out and interview the vice president the following morning at 8 a.m. and that indeed did happen," Zahren said.
At least one deputy showed up at the ranch’s front gate later in the evening and asked to speak to Cheney but was turned away by the Secret Service, Zahren said. There was some miscommunication that arrangements had already been made to interview the vice president, he said.
Gilbert San Miguel, chief deputy sheriff for Kenedy County, said the report had not been completed Monday and that it was being handled as a hunting accident, although he would not comment about what that meant they were investigating.
He said his department’s investigation had found that alcohol was not a factor in the shooting, but he would not elaborate about how that had been determined. The Texas Parks and Wildlife hunting accident report also said neither Cheney nor Whittington appeared to be under the influence of intoxicants or drugs.
Whittington, a prominent Republican attorney in the Texas capital of Austin, was in stable condition at Christus Spohn Hospital Corpus Christi-Memorial and was moved from intensive care to a "step-down unit" Monday. Doctors decided to leave several birdshot pellets lodged in his skin rather than try to remove them.
Armstrong said the accident occurred toward the end of the hunt, as darkness was encroaching and they were preparing to go inside. Whittington was retrieving from tall grass a bird he had shot.
Cheney and another hunter, Pamela Willeford, the U.S. ambassador to Switzerland, moved on to another covey of quail – Armstrong estimated it was roughly 100-150 yards away – and Cheney fired on a bird just as Whittington rejoined them. She said Whittington was in tall grass and thick brush about 30 yards away, which made it difficult for Cheney to see him, although both men were wearing bright-orange safety vests. She said Whittington made a mistake by not vocally announcing that he had walked up to rejoin the hunting line.
Armstrong said she saw Cheney’s security detail running toward the scene. "The first thing that crossed my mind was he had a heart problem," she told The Associated Press.
She said Cheney stayed "close but cool" while the agents and medical personnel treated Whittington, then took him away via ambulance to the hospital. Later, the hunting group sat down for dinner while Whittington was being treated, receiving updates from a family member at the hospital. Armstrong described Cheney’s demeanor during dinner as "very worried" about Whittington.
Duane Harvey, president of the Wisconsin Hunter Education Instructors Association, said if Whittington had made his presence known "that would have been a polite thing to do." But, he added, "it’s still the fault upon the shooter to identify his target and what is beyond it."
Despite all the safety tips and training, hunting accidents are an unfortunate part of the sport. In Texas, there were 30 accidents and two hunting deaths last year, according to the state Parks and Wildlife Department. National figures kept by the International Hunter Education Association show 744 shooting accidents, with 74 deaths, in 2002, the last year for which figures were available. Twenty-six accidents involving quail hunting were reported.
The association estimates there are 15.7 million hunters who will spend about 250 million days hunting in the United States this year.
Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, a Democrat, said the accident wouldn’t keep him from going on a bipartisan hunt with Cheney. "I would be proud to hunt with the vice president – cautious, but proud," he told reporters.