'He Lost Control of His Emotions'

Like Dick Cheney, veteran hunter John Freck knows the feeling of raising a shotgun to a covey of quail. "You get a huge adrenaline rush when the birds flush," says Freck, who regularly pursues quail with his German shorthaired pointer, Gunnar. That rush is one of the reasons hunters love the sport. But it's also the cause of accidents. No matter what

Else they may think of Cheney, hunters around the country agreed last week that the vice president, known as a careful sportsman and a good shot, broke a cardinal rule: in that exhilarating moment when the birds scattered up all around him, he didn't check to make sure his line of fire was clear before he pulled the trigger. "He lost control of his emotions," Freck says. "In a split second, you have to decide all these things at once."

Cheney's misfire was occasion for plenty of political sniping in Washington. But for hunters, the important questions weren't about how the vice president handled himself after the accidental shooting of Harry Whittington, but about the mistakes he may have made leading up to it. In conversations with hunters, one concern cropped up time and again. They sympathized with Cheney--"accidents happen" was a prevailing sentiment--but they worried that it would nonetheless bring unwelcome attention to the sport. "For somebody that doesn't know much --about shooting, they'd say these are crazy guys out there blasting everything," says Bernie Conatser, who runs Virginia Arms Co., a gun shop near the Manassas, Va., Civil War battlefield. "Someone with knowledge knows it shouldn't have happened, but it's the nature of what goes on in hunting."

Bird hunters are especially careful about keeping track of everyone around them because the moment of the kill can be visually chaotic. Hunting quail isn't like tracking large game, where there is one target shot with a single bullet from a rifle, often at a great distance. Flushing a covey of quail can send a dozen or more birds flying in all directions, tempting a hunter to shoot outside his safe range. And bird hunting is usually done with shotguns, which spread hundreds of pellets of birdshot in a pattern wider than the barrel of the gun--increasing the chance that someone could be unintentionally hit if the shooter, concentrating on his quarry, swings too wide when he takes aim. "When you're shooting bird, the field of vision narrows down to tunnel vision," says Jere Hoar, a Mississippi quail hunter for 50 years. "What you see is just that bird. I call it predator vision... and everything else is background."

Cheney's political enemies dismissed his apology on Fox News as too little, too late. But hunters were relieved to hear the vice president plainly say that the accident was his fault. In the aftermath of the shooting, Katharine Armstrong, the ranch owner's daughter, had claimed Whittington, not Cheney, was to blame.

That's not how hunters saw it. It's true they often call out their location to the others to avoid accidents, and some said Whittington should have announced his presence as he approached Cheney. Even so, the attempts to blame the victim rubbed plenty of hunters the wrong way. "I voted for the guy--I love him," says Lance Lyons, manager of Green Valley Hunter's Paradise, a preserve in Millboro, Va. "But the guy made a mistake. He's the trigger man."

If Cheney's mea culpa put the question of blame to rest, something else he said in the same interview raised a different kind of ire among experienced hunters. He admitted that he'd had a beer at lunch on the day of the hunt--a huge taboo in the sport. No one has alleged Cheney was impaired by alcohol; the hunt took place hours after the lunch, and the accident report says no alcohol was involved. But most hunters follow an iron rule of no drinking at all on the day of a hunt. "Here, if you have a beer at lunch the hunt is over," says preserve manager Lyons, who enforces a "daylight to dinnertime" alcohol ban on his property. "We drink all we want after the hunt." (Some hunters also complained that Cheney got off with a warning for hunting without a required $7 quail stamp. An ordinary Joe, they said, would have been hit with a stiff fine at least, especially if he had shot someone.)

For all their complaints about Cheney, though, sportsmen still had a little birdshot left over for the backsides of nonhunting journalists, some of whom chastised Cheney while getting the basic guns-and-ammo facts of the story wrong. "What really infuriates people is they come out and say that someone was shot with buckshot as opposed to birdshot," says Todd Smith, editor in chief of Outdoor Life magazine. And hunters were driven crazy by the notion--which took hold among some bloggers--that the birdshot couldn't possibly have wounded Whittington from 30 yards. Of course, none of those doubters volunteered to put that theory to a field test.

If any good comes from all this, it may be that Cheney's misadventure will serve as a lesson to other hunters. It will be "used as part of the teaching of hunting and gun-safety courses for new hunters all across the country," says Todd Sieben, a hunter and Republican state senator in Illinois. In New York, several Republicans are trying to capitalize on the incident by naming a proposed hunting regulation after him. "Cheney's law" would make it a crime to leave the scene of a hunting accident--something Cheney didn't do.

Stunts like that may give his detractors a good chuckle, but in most of the coun-try hunting is no vice--and often makes for good politics. Teddy Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and even Jimmy Carter were all avid hunters. In Wisconsin, Scott Walker, a GOP candidate for governor, held a pheasant-hunt campaign fund-raiser last weekend at $500 a head. Campaign manager Bruce Pfaff says that all week, people were ribbing the candidate about the hunt. "Usually, it's 'You're not inviting the vice president, right?' " Pfaff says. But in politics, one man's loss can be another man's gain. Pfaff says once talk turned to all Cheney, all the time, "the publicity helped sell this thing out." With Ace Atkins in Mississippi and Daniel I. Dorfman in Illinois