Friday, January 13, 2012

Shooting Shows Need to Revise Hunting Laws

The column below originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on Friday, January 13, 2012.

When off-duty state trooper John Bergeron of Norton went hunting in the woods not far from his home on the last day of 2011, he had no idea his life was going to change forever in one awful moment - along with the life of Cheryl Blair. And now residents of Norton and other semi-rural communities are wondering how safe it is to venture far from their backyards.

Just as hunting season was coming to an end, Bergeron fired his weapon and struck Blair, a 66-year-old grandmother out walking her two dogs in a wooded area in her neighborhood. As this is written, she remains hospitalized with a bullet wound to her body and is fighting infection and complications. She has undergone at least two surgeries and her condition remains serious.

Bergeron called 911 for help, and stayed with the shooting victim until paramedics arrived. He told police he thought he had fired at a deer. He was remorseful during the 911 call and apologized profusely to the wounded woman while on the phone.

Local police investigated along with Environmental Police. Norton police were quick to declare it an accident and announce there would be no charges filed - too quick for some, who wondered if the state trooper was receiving preferential treatment. Norton police have said no such treatment was given. The Environmental Police investigation is still under way at press time.

There can be little doubt this was an accident, a case of shooting at the wrong target without any intent to cause harm to another human being. But should the shooter face charges of some kind? Do hunting regulations in Massachusetts need to be revised for safety reasons? Is it reasonable to expect a state trooper, who carries a gun as part of his job, to exercise better judgment than Bergeron did in this case?

The legal issue is certainly complex and requires a careful review and understanding of the law. But the facts here cry out for some type of corrective action. A grandmother walking her dogs near her own home was shot by a trained trooper who by his own admission mistook his target. That simply cannot be chalked up as an unfortunate accident and forgotten.

I am not a hunter, nor a "gun person." But I understand and appreciate the right of hunters to legally and responsibly practice this ancient art, even if I am not a fan. I also appreciate the right to bear arms, although I do not believe it extends as far as many others do.

But when you hunt in the local woods you assume a grave responsibility. You simply cannot discharge your weapon unless and until you are 100 percent certain of your target. You need to know you are shooting at a deer and not a golden retriever. And yes, that can be tricky and difficult. But when you are a licensed hunter and step into the woods with a dangerous weapon, you accept that burden.

There is also a responsibility to avoid walking in hunting areas without reflective clothing. But seriously - should we all be afraid to walk more than 500 feet from our homes at the risk of being shot? Is being able to hunt that close to dwellings so important that we risk the lives of people like Cheryl Blair?

I grew up in Norton when kids often played in the woods, and hearing gunshots was not unusual in the fall and winter. I live in a wooded section of Norton now, and my kids grew up knowing to be careful of wandering too far. But today, Norton is not a small country town. It is a community with 20,000 people jammed into 27 square miles. And like it or not - things have to change.

It is fair to say hunters have fewer places to go now than in the past. It is also a fact the overwhelming majority of them practice their hobby safely. This incident appears to be the result of a bad hunter, not an indictment of hunting itself. Yet the rules for all hunters may have to change.

If that results in even one fewer grandmother getting shot, I'm all for it.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and a lifelong resident of Norton. He can be reached at

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