Local teen's hunting death raises questions
Tommy Hodges gives a playful groan and rolls his eyes as dad Michael reminds him the approach they're taking to what's clearly becoming the 14-year-old's new passion hunting.
"I'm going to teach him the way I was taught, and it's going to be slow and methodical and controlled, and we're not going to dive right in," Michael Hodges says.
Tommy, a Naperville North High School freshman, didn't fire his first gun until a few months ago, and admits he couldn't hit the broad side of a barn the first couple times he tried trap shooting at the Naperville Sportsman's Club.
Now Tommy's hardly missing, recently taking second place at a club competition, and he eagerly awaits the day he will head to the field to hunt pheasant.
When he does, his father will be at his side, even though, under state law, Tommy could go by himself.
While minors Tommy's age no matter how responsible can't drive, vote or even stay out past 11 p.m. in his hometown without an adult, the law allows them to hunt in Illinois without a parent.
In fact, the state has no minimum hunting age or supervision requirement.
It's a concept that's difficult for some to grasp, particularly in the wake of the Thanksgiving week fatal shooting involving three suburban teenagers squirrel hunting in a rural area west of Rockford.
Michael DiGiovanni, 17, of Bartlett, died Nov. 24 from a gunshot wound to the chest suffered when a 14-year-old friend accidentally shot him with a 12-gauge Remington shotgun.
Along with their 18-year-old friend, the teens broke no laws, possessed all the necessary permits, had taken a state-mandated hunter safety course and had the land owner's permission to hunt on the property.
While some people point out that accidents can and do happen at any age, others argue youth hunters are more prone to make errors that can turn fatal. If the law doesn't prohibit kids from hunting alone, parents should, they say.
"You have to have a constant respect for your gun and understand you can do a lot of damage," Michael Hodges said. "There's no such thing as a little mistake in hunting. I won't let (Tommy) out there without me until he's at least 18."
He'd have the support of Jim Kessler, who spent four years with Americans for Gun Safety before his current role as vice president for policy at Third Way, a progressive think tank in Washington, D.C.
"Common sense says not to allow it," Kessler said about the teens' hunting day trip. "I don't care how many safety courses you've taken. At 14, you're just beginning to learn responsibility. And even responsible teenagers are often risk-takers."
Fatal accidents rare
But many lifelong hunters who learned to use a gun not long after learning to walk couldn't disagree more. They point to statistics showing just how rarely fatal firearm-related accidents occur.
Between 2005 and 2009, seven people died due to a discharged firearm or bow while hunting in Illinois; 56 were injured. A total of 11 hunters died and 78 were hurt in accidents not involving their guns or bows, nearly all due to falls from tree-stand platforms.
During the same period, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources issued more than 1 million permits for firearm hunters.
"By and large the majority of hunters in Illinois are very safe," IDNR spokesman Chris McCloud said. "This is not a dangerous recreational sport."
Jeff Hopkins is working to keep it that way. As IDNR safety education administrator, he oversees the state's hunter safety program. As of 1996, anyone born after Jan. 1, 1980, has to take the certification course to get a hunting permit.
More than 17,000 people take the class every year at facilities such as sporting goods stores, schools and Elk lodges. It calls for a minimum of 10 hours instruction from one of about 1,100 trained volunteers who cover topics such as zones of fire when hunting in a group, tree-stand safety, and laws and regulations.
It also teaches the 10 safety "commandments" of firearm handling, including: keep your finger outside the trigger guard until ready to shoot; don't run, jump or climb with a loaded firearm; and point a firearm only at something you intend to shoot.
Illinois first required the course in 1976 for ages 15 and younger. The criteria changed because statistics were showing people who started hunting at later ages were involved in more accidents.
Hopkins said about 75 percent of the program's students are 15 years old and younger. He's seen kids as young as 3 or 4 sign up, and anyone under 10 has to have a guardian sit in on the course.
"Our accidents with the youth are extremely low," Hopkins said. "Those are the freak situations that the media focus on and make the general public scream out against hunting. But that's not the norm. Hunting is about a couple of dads taking their sons and daughters out, maybe coming back with a pheasant, enjoying the day outside together with a picnic in the field, and having stories to tell at night."
In 2007, the Illinois State Police pushed for a minimum age requirement of 10 years old to obtain a Firearm Owner's Identification Card. The movement was a result of a newspaper column in which the writer got a FOID card for his 10-month-old. The legislation quickly died, however.
Under current rules, anyone under 21 applying for a FOID card has to have the consent of a parent or legal guardian who's eligible to buy or possess firearms or ammunition. The applicant can't have been adjudged delinquent or been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor other than a traffic violation.
Of the 1.3 million current FOID card holders, 49,555 are between 11 and 20 years old, and 710 are under 11, Illinois State Police spokesman Master Sgt. Isaiah Vega said.
Minimum ages, supervision elsewhere
Several other states also have no minimum hunting age. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, youth hunting licenses are available in Indiana for children under 17 who've passed a hunter safety class.
Kids under 12 in Iowa can be issued a deer or turkey license, but have to be accompanied by a licensed adult hunter. And in Wisconsin, kids between 10 and 17 can hunt, but only with an adult guardian who's also a licensed hunter.
Wisconsin last year lowered the minimum age from 12 to 10, citing the need to get younger kids appreciating nature and maintaining the state's hunting tradition.
Karl Brooks, Wisconsin's assistant chief conservation warden, said neither legislators nor the general public would have been comfortable eliminating the age requirement altogether.
"After a lot of debate, it seemed to be an age where most people agreed children could grasp the concept of the firearm's power under the mentorship of someone older, use wise judgment and also have the physical stature to make a good, clean shot," Brooks said.
Illinois State Rifle Association Executive Director Richard Pearson said age requirements are arbitrary and that the matter should be left to the parent and child.
"It depends totally on the kid," Pearson said. "Unless the rules of safety are ingrained, such as always know your target and what's beyond, and never point a firearm loaded or unloaded at a person, then they shouldn't even be touching BB guns."
Pearson said that while 5-year-olds can technically hunt, they can't buy a gun or ammunition until they're 18. He added that hunting and firearms have excellent safety ratings, pointing out that far more children are killed playing football each year than while hunting.
The National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research at the University of North Carolina data shows that out of the 36.8 million people who played high school football between 1983 and 2009, 699 suffered direct catastrophic brain or spinal cord injuries, accounting for 97.1 percent of the catastrophic injuries in all high school fall sports. Of those, 111 were fatal.
Tommy Hodges said he knows the dangers involved with hunting, and grasps the power he holds while gripping his 12-gauge shotgun.
"You can't goof around, and you have to be serious with it the whole time," Tommy said. "I won't ever forget that."