For West Virginia’s hunters, orange has been the color of success.
Before the state began requiring hunters to wear at least 400 square inches of fluorescent “blaze” orange clothing during deer firearm seasons, people mistaken for deer got shot. A lot. Since then, so-called “shooter-on-victim” incidents have become almost nonexistent.
“The bottom line is that [hunters] aren’t shooting each other,” said Lt. Ed Goodson, hunter safety coordinator for the state Natural Resources Police.
West Virginia’s blaze-orange law went into effect on Jan. 1, 1983. In the five years leading up to that date, an average of 11 hunters per year were shot by others. Goodson said most of those shootings resulted in fatalities.
In the five years after the law went into effect, the average dropped dramatically.
“From 1983 to 1988, we averaged just two shooter-on-victim incidents a year,” Goodson said.
The situation got even better after 1990, when the state began requiring mandatory hunter safety education classes for all first-time hunting-license buyers. In 1994, that was revised to include all hunters born after Jan. 1, 1975.
The classes gave students lessons on target identification and gun handling. As the lessons took hold, shooting incidents declines still further.
In the year 2000, the Natural Resources Police began compiling a running database of hunting-related incidents.
“That first year, we had one shooter-on-victim incident during the deer [firearm] season,” Goodson said. “We didn’t have another until 2010, when we had two. From 2010 through 2018, the total was zero. Not a single shooter-on-victim incident during the deer season since 2010.”
One reason, he added, was “undoubtedly” hunters’ compliance with the blaze-orange requirement.
“In hunter-safety classes, we tell people to make sure they’re seen as a hunter and not a deer,” he said. “Just about everyone sees the benefit in that.”
Hunters still get shot, but those shootings usually result from careless gun-handling and are often self-inflicted. Others occur when hunters fall and their firearms discharge accidentally.
“Guys will rest their gun’s muzzle on the toe of a boot, or will rest their hand over the muzzle,” Goodson said. “The gun discharges and they’ve shot themselves. Unfortunately, there’s no way to legislate that sort of incident away.”
Instead, safety advocates try to influence hunters’ willingness to comply with the blaze-orange law.
“People ask me, ‘Why do I have to wear this?’ ” Goodson said. “And I say, ‘It’s going to keep you alive.’ ”