The Responsibilities of Hunters

Original article featured in New Zealand Deerstalkers’ newsletter (Jan/feb 2011) – Written by Chaz Forsyth

The responsibilities of hunters

Today the widespread availability of instant communication, of 20 second ‘sound bites’, and of ready access to information (as opposed to ‘knowledge’) empowers us all, and imposes responsibility too. Hopefully, wisdom will emerge from all this.

So it is with firearms. Owning something capable of punching as projectile clean through a target, be it living or inanimate, implies responsibilities and rights which are easily taken for granted.

Firearm misuse and motor vehicle misuse

The daily news inevitably catalogues the latest road incident, often involving “accidental” injury, or worse, and the outcomes of those incidents where people attempt to escape Police by speeding away from a scene. Media interest in such events is intense, whereas the millions of safe road users rarely rate a mention, which parallels the situation for arms owners.

Every weekend, thousands of licensed firearms users drive to their ranges, to their hunting areas, or to their gun shows etc, safely, and over the weekend perhaps fire scores of shots on a range, or one shot hunting, or no shots at all (if attending a gun show). It’s only when things go wrong that the mass media becomes at all interested.

The style of news journalism focusing on violence and tragedy gave rise to the philosophy of, “if it bleeds, it leads”. In New Zealand a road fatality occurs nearly every day, along with more than 200 injuries per week, whereas firearm fatalities from all causes (mainly suicide), total fewer than 70 per year, with less than four injuries per week.


These facts lead us to our responsibilities as arms users: Public safety, the humane killing of game, the observance of the rule of law, the observance of social responsibilities to land owners and occupiers, care for the environment, respect for sustainability and respect for the rules and ethics concerning the great outdoors.

For hunters, these extend beyond the expectations that are set for firearms owners in general, in that humane killing and respect for the environment are also factors. This culture, which has endured for centuries, long before New Zealand was discovered by anyone, transcends mere legislation (which can change at the flick of a pen).

It’s all down to the individual whose outlook is paramount. Leopold put it elegantly when he wrote:

A peculiar virtue in wildlife ethics is that the hunter ordinarily has no gallery to applaud or disapprove of his conduct. Whatever he acts, they are dictated by his own conscience, rather than by a mob of onlookers.

(A Sandy country Almanack, 1949)(p. 178).

Historically, there were three basic rules of firearm safety, increasing to five in the mid-1970’s, then expanding to seven in the early 1980’s. These changes reflected the identification of factors in arms accidents that required addressing. The appearance of the Arms Code in the mid 1970’s formalised basic firearm handling principles which, hitherto, had been restricted to infrequent publication of the New Zealand Mountain Safety Council.

The business of obtaining an arms licence works to reinforce the social responsibilities for all arms owners. This basic training has been criticised by some pundits of the New Zealand mass media, among others. These criticisms have included calls to introduce a practical component to the testing required for an arms licence. Inspector Joe Green, the Manager, Licensing & Vetting Service Centre at Police National Headquarters, has a simple response:

The Regulations require a course of training designed to teach applicants to handle firearms safely, and to pass a theoretical test… It is this knowledge-based learning that makes the user aware of the seven points in the Arms Code… MSC instructors… recommend that licence applicants… join a club that suits their shooting interest. There are a myriad of shooting scenarios and it would be impossible to do practical training in all of them.
I am fully supportive of practical training. I think that licence holders should receive guidance and instruction in their chosen shooting interest. However I do not see it as a compulsory requirement for licensing.
My conclusion is that, based on the evidence, the current training regime meets the needs of firearms safety. Training in gun handling at a club is a good but not such that we would make it compulsory.

The seven basic rules of firearm safety

Here at the seven basic rules

  • Treat every firearm as loaded
  • Always point firearms in a safe direction
  • Load firearms only when ready to fire
  • Identify your target beyond all doubt
  • Check your firing zone
  • Store firearms and ammunition safely
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs when handling firearms

Beyond these rules, the hunting field places extra demands. These include the acquisition of bushcraft and river crossing skills, some basic snowcraft, an awareness of risk management, and for when things go badly wrong, a knowledge of outdoor first aid. The ability to identify areas where deer feed based on knowledge of their preferred plant species, and a willingness, based on experience, to understand animal tracking and behaviour, all help towards hunting success too.

Putting these skills and knowledge together will make you a valuable addition to a hunting party, as well as enhancing your chances of success. Some people think that a major danger is being accidentally shot by another hunter. No, you’re more at risk of an accident while driving to and from your hunting area, or during a river crossing in the hunting area.

Inspector Green has also considered the risks of failing to properly identify your target. He found that with approximately 38,000 hunters out there, doing approximately 260,000 days of hunting annually, sine 80,000 deer were shot. During that time (1979 – 2002) a hunter shot another approximately 1.5 times a year. This amounted to 33 incidents of the 23 year study period.
Joe found that about 70% of the time the shooters were experienced, and 70% of the time the victim was a member of the same party as the shooter. In more than half the incidents the shooter knew the victim was in the area. Target identification was the problem.

The solution is simple: in addition to taking on board Joe Green’s conclusions (below), bear in mind that the thing you see ahead might be a human, until you’ve convinced yourself it is not. Remember you are responsible for each shot you fire. You cannot recall the bullet!

Here are Joe’s main recommendations:

  • A hunter must not shoot at shape, sound, movement or colour, including those that belong to a deer, without confirming that his target is a deer
  • A wise hunter wears clothing that contrasts with the environment, including deer in that environment
  • When hunting with a companion, cease hunting if visual contact with that companion is lost, and do not resume hunting until visual contact is made and confirmed
  • A hunter must develop a self-awareness that enables him to identify ‘buck fever’ in himself, and to counteract it with extra care
  • Use binoculars to identify your target; use the scope only to place the shot.
  • Snap shooting is to be avoided unless target identification is complete
  • If an area is obviously heavily occupied by other hunters, consider hunting elsewhere
  • Hunters should undergo specific training
  • Hunters should belong to a club. Club membership is the best source of training and peer guidance
  • Hunters should agree on hunting areas (‘blocks’), with a clearly defined ‘no fire zone’ between areas. Do not hunt outside the agreed area, including on the way back to camp
  • If a boundary is agreed (for example a ridgeline or creek), no shots may be fired toward or over that boundary line
  • If it is absolutely necessary for one hunter to knowingly move into another’s area, perhaps because of an emergency, do not stalk into the area. The hunter should move in a way that makes it obvious he is not a deer
  • Do not move into the firing zone or arc of fire of a hunting companion
  • Do not make the mistake of thinking that something of similar colour to a deer is actually a deer
  • Do not shoot when others are known to be in the firing zone
  • When hunting in parallel with a companion, keep sight of each other, maintain an arc of fire 180 degrees away from each other with a ‘no fire zone’ between you, including forward and back
  • When taking turns hunting together with a companion, the non-hunting companion should not resume hunting until mutually agreed
  • Hunting is not a time to fool around. Do not behave like a deer knowing your mate is hunting nearby. He may end up hunting you
  • If carrying a deer carcass, cover it so that it is clearly contrasted and cannot be mistaken for a live animal

Hunting confers the power of life or death over your quarry. Do not take this lightly. We are the only species that predates upon deer in New Zealand. The satisfaction of hunting are always tinged by the regret we hold for the animal we have just killed. That’s part of the respect we hold for our quarry. An ethical hunter, in striving for success, always remains open to learning opportunities. Gaining new insights is part of the exploration of hunting.

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