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col Just don't call it a 'hunting rampage'

I got up at 5 a.m. Monday, turned on the TV and was greeted by a full-screen headline that screamed:"Hunting Rampage."

I felt like I'd been punched in the stomach.

By now, everyone who reads a newsper or owns a television or radio has heard about the dreadful events that occurred in Wisconsin on Sunday, so I won't try to break any new ground there. Hunters argued about a deer stand, harsh words were exchanged and senseless tragedy resulted.

But was this a "hunting rampage?" No. It appears to have been cold-blooded murder by someone who happened to be wearing blaze orange.

In case you think I'm splitting hairs, let me put this more bluntly: Don't blame hunting -- or hunters -- for what happened Sunday. Don't blame assault weapons.

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In short, as horrible as this event was, don't blame anyone or anything except the man who pulled the trigger.

That seems logical, but there are plenty of people out there who are more than ready to use this tragedy for political gain. And they'll probably succeed, to a certain extent.

I'd barely settled in my chair Monday morning before people started asking me "Why would anyone be hunting with an automatic assault rifle?" I patiently explained that the rifle was a semi-auto, not a "machine gun," and noted that thousands of hunters right here in southeastern Minnesota hunt with auto-loading slug guns and somehow manage to kill deer, not each other.

"But why would anyone need an assault rifle to hunt deer?"

I'm not a big fan of military-style weapons, but I tried to explain that the term "assault rifle" refers primarily to cosmetic features on the weapon.

I have a feeling my explanations didn't get through real well.

Likewise, when I expressed my opinion that this event was a shooting rampage, not a hunting rampage, I received more than one incredulous glance.

That's not surprising: Hunters are a minority group, and we've known for a long time that plenty of non-hunters see us as testosterone-crazed fools with itchy trigger fingers.

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That's nonsense, of course, but events like those that unfolded in Wisconsin get bigger headlines than the fact that so far this year, not a single deer hunter has died in Minnesota due to an accidental shooting. Given that nearly half a million hunters took to the woods this year, that's an amazing statistic, but it won't sell newspapers.

Nor will the fact that the vast majority of hunters are ethical and polite. If informed they're trespassing, they apologize and depart. If they hunt public land, they don't knowingly encroach on other hunters' space. They're careful with their guns, shoot only when they know it's safe to do so and try to kill game quickly and humanely.

The bottom line is simple: I don't know the exact numbers, but I'd wager that deer hunting is far safer than swimming, bicycling, ice-fishing, snowmobiling, skateboarding or jaywalking. Furthermore, without deer hunters, our highways would be even more cluttered with dead deer and the crumpled remains of the vehicles that hit them. Auto insurance rates would soar, and farmers and gardeners would be left to fight a losing battle against crop loss.

So, the next time you hear people talking about this supposed "hunting rampage," do hunters a favor: Explain, very quietly and calmly, that carrying a rifle and sitting in a tree doesn't qualify one as a hunter. The moment someone draws a bead on another person, they've forfeited the right to claim such a title.

Tell them that hunting is a tradition-rich activity that strengthens the bonds of family and friendship. Let them know that you never feel closer to nature and God's creation than when you hear a turkey gobbling at dawn, or when you're following a dog through the tall grass, or when you're watching a flock of mallards set their wings over your decoys.

You probably won't change many minds, but hopefully you'll at least give people something to think about.

And if they remain openly skeptical to the point of being rude, try asking them this: If road rage causes a deadly crash, does that reflect badly on everyone who gets behind the wheel?

I think not.

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Eric Atherton is the Post-Bulletin's outdoors editor. Contact him at eatherton@postbulletin.com

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