For the first time since the Pennsylvania Game Commission began tracking such numbers in 1915, a year passed without a hunting-related death in the state.
According to figures released in May by the Commission for the 2012 calendar year, there were 33 nonfatal incidents related to gun handling in hunting and trapping situations, but even that number ties 2007 for the fewest recorded in the state.
"I believe it is something to be celebrated," Phil Luckenbaugh, hunter education specialist with the Game Commission's hunter-trapper division, told the Lancaster (Pa.) News. "We've come to this benchmark. Will it continue? Who knows? But it is a significant steppingstone into the future of hunting safety."
The improvement of hunting safety in the state cannot be denied. In 1931, there were 27 hunting/shooting fatalities across the state. And in 1960, 552 hunters either shot themselves or another hunter in nonfatal accidents.
In 2011, there were two hunting-related fatalities and 34 nonlethal shooting incidents, well below the 10-year average of 51.1 incidents per year.
There were more than 930,000 licensed hunters in Pennsylvania in 2012. Of the 33 nonfatal incidents, 10 involved hunting of deer, five for spring turkey and one each for fox, rabbit, duck and coyotes. The rest were accidental discharge of firearms. The statistics did not take into account other potential, nonshooting hazards, such as heart attacks, falling out of tree stands, ect.
Additionally in 2012, there were no shooting incidents during the fall turkey season and none involving participants in the state’s Mentored Youth Hunting Program.
Pennsylvania is second only to Texas in the number of annual hunting license sales. But the required hunter education courses and other safety-related regulatory changes have helped make the state one of the safest for hunters.
"This is certainly good news, and I think it's probably the result of a lot of work from our instructors, and also the National Wild Turkey Federation and other programs, to just get the word out to clearly identify your target and know what's behind it," said Carl Roe, the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s executive director. "There's also the emphasis on using the proper arm at the proper time and proper place to have a safe hunt."
In addition to hunting safety courses used by every state – which includes a curriculum developed by the National Rifle Association – the Pennsylvania Game Commission also has safety training specific to turkey hunting and tree stands. Pennsylvania is also the only state with a mandatory trapping component for its hunter safety program.
Since 1982, Pennsylvania has required its deer and small-game hunters to wear fluorescent orange. Then the Commission made a controversial move in 2001 when it required turkey hunters to wear orange while moving through the woods. Those requirements were rescinded in 2008 when the National Wild Turkey Federation successfully argued they were not making a difference in safety and that turkeys would spot the orange and flee more in the spring than in fall. Turkey hunters are still required to wear orange in the fall season.
Increased education, hunter orange requirements, better enforcement of hunting hours and restrictions on when and how hunters can use specific sporting arms contributed to a safer hunting culture in the state.
"The trend in two-party incidents is also going down," Keith Snyder, the head of the Commission’s hunter safety division, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "Used to be that 75 percent of all incidents involved two parties. Now it's more toward 50-50. The only real way to combat self-inflicted injuries is with more education reminding them to control the muzzle."
According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, 16.3 million hunters went afield in 2010. Of that total, approximately 8,122 sustained injuries -- or 50 per 100,000 participants. The vast majority of hunting accidents, more than 6,600, involved tree stands.
"We must look at the facts and continue to let the nonhunting public know that hunting is one of the safest sports we have,” Pennsylvania Game Commissioner James Jay Delaney told the Lancaster Times. “The statistics prove that."
Roe said the Pennsylvania Game Commission is upgrading its education process in order to better reach younger hunters, trimming the 10-hour, two-day course to six hours in a single day with a pre-class, Internet-based home study component along with in-class video and digital presentations.
“We’ve made an incredible jump in safety, making hunting a safe experience for everybody in the woods,” Snyder said.