The condition of a Westford man, shot accidentally by his hunting partner in Stowe, was upgraded to fair this week at the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington.
Joshua Fitzgerald, 31, was shot on McCall Pasture Road in Stowe Nov. 20. He’d been hunting with Avery Cochran, 24, of South Burlington, and they had returned to their truck on McCall Pasture Road.
At about 5 p.m., Cochran was unloading his rifle inside the truck when the gun went off, and the bullet hit Fitzgerald in the abdomen.
Police are calling the incident an accident, and say they’re still looking into how it happened.
Cochran declined to comment on what happened.
The Stowe Police Department, Stowe Emergency Medical Services, Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department and Vermont State Police all responded to the shooting, and Fitzgerald was taken to the UVM Medical Center for treatment.
That night, his injuries were called “life-threatening” by Stowe police, and the next day, Fitzgerald’s condition was described as serious but stable.
By Monday afternoon, his condition had been upgraded to fair, but hospital officials said it was too early to say when he would be released.
Stowe police don’t think alcohol or drugs were a factor in the shooting, and think it was an accident. The investigation is continuing, and early this week Stowe Police Chief Donald Hull said he had no updates.
The numbers on accidents
Louis Porter, commissioner of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, says it’s illegal to have a loaded long gun — a rifle, shotgun or muzzleloader — inside a vehicle, even if it’s being unloaded at the time.
It’s also illegal to hunt after half an hour after sunset, according to Vermont law.
On Nov. 20, the sun set at 4:19 p.m., putting Cochran and Fitzgerald within that time frame for hunting, but it was dark.
From data going back to 1972, Porter says Vermont has had an average of eight hunting-related shooting accidents a year in deer season.
Just two years — 2012 and 2014 — had no hunting-related shooting accidents. Last year, there were four.
There hasn’t been a November rifle fatality in the state since 2011, Porter said.
When a shooting accident does occur, it’s not typically fatal.
In 1972, there were 16 shooting accidents, one of which was fatal.
Since 2007, there have been seven shooting accidents during turkey hunting season. One, in 2009, was fatal, caused by an accidental discharge, Porter said.
Last year, Vermont had 70,193 registered hunters, and 9,233 residents of other states had registered to hunt in Vermont, according to Fish and Wildlife.
Porter said his department is proud of the reduction in hunting-related shooting accidents, and says the efforts of volunteer hunting training instructors are part of the reason.
Nicole Meier, hunter education and outreach specialist with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, said there are about 400 volunteer hunter educators throughout the state.
About 14 teach in Lamoille County, Meier said.
Each hunter has to go through at least eight hours of training, and all educators are “veteran hunters” trained by the state in hunter education.
New York was the first state to adopt hunter education in 1949. Vermont first began offering a program in the early 1950s, but it wasn’t mandatory for licensure in the state until 1972, Meier said.
Vermont requires six hours of firearms handling education, she said.
“We’ve really seen a down trend in the hunting related shooting incidents because of education” statewide, Meier said.
“We have so few hunting-related shooting accidents that I wouldn’t want that to deter anyone or make anyone feel unsafe. The majority of accidents that we see happening are largely self-inflicted, which doesn’t make it right or good by any means, but I think that people shouldn’t be afraid to go into the woods,” she said.
Marshall Faye, who has lived in Stowe most of his life, taught hunter safety for about 25 years.
“You never unload a gun inside the vehicle. You can accidentally shoot somebody,” Faye said.
He was dismayed to hear Fitzgerald had been shot by his friend by accident, since that’s the very thing he worked hard to teach hunters not to do.
“That’s absolutely the wrong thing to do,” Faye said. “It’s safer for everybody to unload the gun outside the vehicle, pointing in a safe direction. … It’s the most important thing in hunter safety — muzzle control. Making sure you know where that is at all times.”
To Faye, hunter safety is all about reminding hunters that they’re in control of their weapons.
“It’s really stupid to not be safe with a rifle or any gun. You don’t point it in the direction of somebody else. If you’re unloading it and you’re getting into either side of a car, then you’re pointing it at somebody else,” he said.
“Always make sure your gun is unloaded before you get into a vehicle. Whenever you come to a fence or an obstruction, you always unload your rifle, pass it over to another hunter, or carefully set it on the other side, climb over and then pick it up. We teach everybody, you can’t trust a safety. The safety is just a mechanical piece, so you want to make sure your gun is not loaded” regardless of whether the safety is engaged, Faye said.
Faye said he was once almost shot by accident by a man hunting after the sun set, and had “words” with him.
He believes hunting is “probably the safest sport you can have,” if hunters follow all the rules.
Porter agrees, citing a 2011 National Shooting Sports Federation report saying a person is 19 times more likely to be injured while snowboarding than hunting, and 25 times more likely to get hurt riding a bicycle.
Hunting with firearms has a 0.05 percent injury rate, according to the National Shooting Sports Federation report — that is, 0.05 percent of people who hunt with firearms will get hurt.
That’s about one injury for every 2,000 hunters, the federation says.
“I think there’s a higher likelihood of you being struck by lightning than getting shot randomly during hunting season,” Meier said.