TORRINGTON – “What is a firearm?”
Ron Miller hoisted a rifle for the whole class to see. There was a lengthy pause while he gazed out on the rows of mostly young faces, awaiting an answer.
“It’s a tool,” a small child finally said.
“A tool? That’s absolutely right,” Miller boomed.
He stood in front of three long tables. Thirty-three pairs of eyes peered back at him. Most of them belonged to children, elementary and middle school-aged. Their parents sat beside them - some simply to accompany their son or daughter, but others were Miller’s students as well.
The white, boxy classroom felt like any other school environment. Except for the gun mounted on the wall. And the gun in Miller’s hand. And the dozen other guns laying on the table next to him.
Miller scanned the room for a test subject. He settled on a young woman in the corner, walking over and resting his rifle in front of her face.
“Is this gun loaded?”
She stared at the gun, then silently at Miller. He returned the gun to his chest.
“The answer is: all guns are loaded until we prove that they’re not.”
The Wyoming Game & Fish Department sponsors hunter education courses, with 250 active volunteer instructors teaching 1,500 graduates annually. Passing the class is a mandatory component to legally hunt any type of game.
The courses are over 50 years old, designed primarily to curb hunting accidents. Obscure federal legislation like the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act and Dingell-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration Act is critical for Game & Fish. The taxes on everything from firearms to ammunition to sporting tackle provide Wyoming some $19 million to restore habitats, research wildlife, and fund classes like Miller’s.
The goal of the class, like any other, is to pass a test.
Over two days and 11 hours, Miller and his co-instructors would direct the students at the Goshen County Sportsman Club time and again back to the textbook: the Wyoming Hunter Education Student Manual.
“You wanna read that for us?” Miller asked, cold-calling a young boy to read a section titled “Treat every firearm as if it is loaded.”
“Never accept a firearm from anyone else until you have personally checked to see that it is unloaded,” the child recited.
Very good, Miller nodded, calling on every student in turn to read some section of the manual aloud.
Miller, 67, has taught the class for 30 years. Bald and wearing a baggy blue t-shirt, he knew that most - if not every child - in the room had hands-on experience with firearms. His job was not to contradict or correct their parents. But rather to add a layer of complexity.
“Everybody’s code of ethics is going to be different,” he said. It was the first term at the top of the first page. Unwritten rules respecting what is safe and fair.
“One of my code of ethics is-” he pointed an unloaded revolver toward the ceiling and pulled the trigger with a click -”this ain’t a weapon. I don’t need a ‘weapon’ to shoot a deer.”
Some tenets of the code of ethics are clear. Give the animal a fair chase. Respect hunters. Respect non-hunters. (They have us outnumbered, Miller joked.)
But it didn’t take long to find a gray area. Suppose, Miller said, you’re hunting in the mountains and come across a badly wounded elk. It can’t get up. The animal is clearly suffering.
What do you do?
Shoot it, said one person. Call the game warden, said another. Miller listened.
“I’m just making you think,” he said. “None of the answers are wrong.”
If you shoot the animal, called out co-instructor George Haas from the side, do you field dress it?
“What’s your code of ethics say?” was Miller’s answer.
One-third of the class was women or girls. Miller said it was typical. In fact, he has seen a rise in single mothers coming in with their kids.
Carol Watson sat next to Katie and Kayla, her 13-year-old twins. She said they were here because they want to hunt as a family. Even if the girls don’t pull the trigger, they just enjoy seeing the animals in their element.
“With a gun, and you’re taking that life, they learn the respect that comes from that,” she said. Her husband always says: if you can’t run after the animal if you shoot it, and move the carcass, don’t shoot.
That was his code of ethics.
A short while later, Miller had the class study a bar chart illustrating how far various calibers of bullets can travel. One bar - the 7mm Magnum - was far longer than the rest. A range of five miles.
“That bullet, when you pull that trigger, it hits Main Street in Torrington in about three seconds,” Miller informed the class. The room grew quiet.
“Those are the things you have to think about when you get ready to shoot,” he said. “Sometimes it’s right to shoot. Sometimes it isn’t.”
Remember your code of ethics.
Late on Friday night, just before 9:30, some in the class appeared drained. Miller switched off the lights, which would only seem to enable the drowsiness. We’re going to watch a movie, he said.
This movie is real serious, Haas barked as the screen lit up. “Put this in your mind and leave it there.”
The screen fades in on a classroom of high school students, pencils in hand, as two instructors in orange vests recite the kinds of lines one might find verbatim in the hunter’s manual.
“Statistically, hunting and shooting are safer than most other sports.”
“There are six ways to carry a rifle when you’re in the field.”
The camera cuts to one of the students at home, instant messaging on an archaic desktop computer. The phone rings. It’s his friend, Eric.
My parents aren’t going to be home this weekend, Eric says. We have plenty of ammunition. It’ll be fun.
Campy ‘90s elevator music rolls over a montage. The boys, Eric and Danny, trudge through the forest, shooting at targets and climbing up trees as the movie cuts back every few seconds to the instructors in the classroom, who narrate everything the boys do wrong.
“One of the hardest things to do is tell a friend or relative that he or she is acting unsafely,” the teacher says as Danny yells at Eric for pointing a muzzle at him accidentally.
“Once that gun goes off, you can never call that shot back.”
The music fades out ominously as Eric arranges a line of empty soda cans atop a log. You shoot the Sprite cans and I’ll shoot the Coca-Colas, he tells Danny.
Danny aims his rifle. One. Two. Three. He knocks three off the log and misses the rest.
Eric scoffs, saying that’s an easy number to beat.
Picking up his own rifle, he counts off the hits. One. Two. Three. Four.
Eric congratulates himself and steps forward. Suddenly, he slips on the leaves. The video slows and the color drains. A gunshot sounds and Danny’s face contorts.
The music quickens and intensifies as ambulances and law enforcement swarm the scene. The afternoon has been replaced by darkened snowfall to mark the passage of time. The voiceover repeats:
“Once that gun goes off, you can never call that shot back.”
Then it repeats again.
Inside the hospital, surgeons work to save Danny. Eric is alone in the hallway, his face contorted, pounding the walls in agony.
Danny flatlines. The doctor shakes his head. Only 14 years old. He’ll go tell the parents.
The screen fades to black.
In the classroom, eyes were wide open again. Miller dismissed the class.
The next morning, Haas grilled the students on everything the boys in the video did wrong. It was a memory test, but one the children aced.
The boys didn’t control the muzzle. They shot into water. They took firearms without permission.
“I would point out,” said a woman in the front row, “that you don’t need two people for a gun accident.” Her 13-year-old cousin was rabbit hunting in 1992. He shot into a rock and the bullet ricocheted into his body.
It took out every organ. He never made it to the hospital.
Of Miller’s 2,700 students in 30 years, he only knew of one incident post-graduation. A hand blown off while coming out of a canyon.
There has also been only one incident during a class. Haas was the victim.
“I turned around to see what was going on at the table next to me because there was a .22 rifle going off, and this kid turned around to see where I was,” he recalled.
The next thing he knew, a gun was in his face with the hammer back and a finger on the trigger. Haas swatted it away and it went off.
“It put some shavings into my hand,” he said, tracing lines on his right palm. “I had to dig them out with a knife.”
Midway through the second day, Haas split the class into three sections. He took the first group to the side of the room, displaying an orange Mossberg shotgun.
This is an inert gun, he explained. They cannot fire. Pull the trigger as much as you want.
Haas, 74, could be jocular and teasing at times, eliciting giggles. In other moments, he demanded accuracy.
He picked up a gun from the table and handed it to Watson. She touched it, then froze.
“Is it empty?”
“You’re too late,” Haas scolded her.
Haas wandered to the other side of the circle, pointing out the different parts of the gun. Suddenly he wheeled back on Katie, planting the gun two inches in front of her face.
“Is it loaded?” she asked calmly before raising her hand.
Outside with Miller and co-instructor Chad Foos, Chad Hergenrader watched his two sons wait in line to shoot clay targets with a shotgun.
Despite the instructors’ attempts to keep things light, there was an onslaught of complex regulations to absorb. What to do if you want to shoot across state lines. How far from a road you can shoot? The classifications of two dozen animals, which Haas crammed through in a half-hour lesson.
Were his kids retaining all of that?
“Probably not,” Hergenrader shrugged. “And maybe they are. I think they listen better than I think they do. But let’s face it: most of it’s learned out there.”
He nodded toward the vast open prairie. Right then, Foos yelled, “pull!” A clay pigeon shot up and Hergenrader’s son Austin, 9, demolished it with the shotgun.
“Good shot!” Hergenrader exclaimed, clearly pleased. Austin perfectly bisected a second clay pigeon - possibly the only person to do so - and his father was ecstatic.
A few minutes later, Hergenrader quietly marched over.
“He already said something that I didn’t think he would catch,” he said of his other son, Chace. “What did you say about the hawk? He saw a hawk flying over there. What did you say?”
Chace, 11, whispered that it was a protected bird.
“They really did pay attention,” Hergenrader said.
Back in the classroom, Foos heaved a large black box onto the table.
“With the change in the regulations for antelope and deer, a .223 beomes a legal caliber to hunt with,” Miller said, as Foos unveiled a familiar-looking semi-automatic weapon - the AR-style rifle that flashes on television screens after every mass shooting.
“What do you think? Good hunting rifle?”
Soft murmurs of “no” rippled through the room as Foos stoically displayed the gun high above his head.
This gun is in the media a lot, he said. People call it an assault weapon. He practically spat the term.
“We don’t have ‘weapons,’ one. And the definition of assault is to cause harm on a person. There’s nobody in this room that should take this and cause harm on a person.”
He lowered it to his chest.
“This is a simple semi-automatic rifle. It’s not an assault weapon.”
Outside, Candice McCart frowned. Her family first took her hunting at six months old, she said. McCart was the one whose cousin accidentally shot himself in ‘92.
“I don’t like it,” she said about Foos’s semi-automatic rifle being newly legal for deer hunting.
“Your magazines are way too big. You don’t need 10, 20, 30 shots to make a kill to put food on your table. If you’re using that many shots, you’re not sporting.”
It certainly fed into the argument from gun control advocates that weapons with 30-round magazines are for shooting people, not for hunting animals.
Miller acknowledged the point after class, eyeing the 18-round magazine of a semi-automatic pistol on the table.
“I wouldn’t call it a weapon. I would call it a pistol because that’s my code of ethics,” he said. But still, it’s not something he would take hunting.
If Miller wouldn’t call it a weapon, when does a firearm become a weapon?
“When it’s in the hands of a cop or military,” he said without pausing. “You go to town and you’ve got a shotgun, absolutely it would be a bird gun, goose gun.”
He picked up one of the Mossberg inert rifles and planted himself with the gun across his chest and leered down.
“But you go pull it out on Main Street and that cop’s gonna say drop your weapon. That’s their terminology. Everything is a weapon.”
Over the years, the hunter education test has been the bedrock, more or less unchanging. Even as online classes became acceptable. Even as the children of Miller and Haas’s first generation of students came through.
“There’s different challenges that we throw out, like the wounded animal,” Miller said. “Different people never thought about it. The older guys, some of them have seen that situation; some of them haven’t. But most never thought about it.”
Was that an indication that they hadn’t thought about their own code of ethics?
Absolutely, Miller said. To sit down and go through training like this when he was a boy in the ‘50s? It didn’t happen.
One lingering question was whether, in the course of 30 years teaching this class, Haas and Miller’s codes of ethics had changed.
Both shook their heads.
Mine has, Foos spoke up.
The youngest of the trio at 52, he used to be a guide. He would take people out, trophy hunters. People who paid thousands of dollars to just shoot at animals.
Foos could not count how many times he cleaned and field dressed an animal after the hunter shot it, walked up for a picture, and walked away.
“It totally ruined me for hunting. I don’t hunt anymore,” he said. The lack of respect for the animal pained him.
“I don’t know if I could be a guide,” Haas mused.
“It was real tough,” Foos said. “I quit. I haven’t shot an animal since.”
One by one, students finished filling out their multiple choice tests, bringing them to the front of the room for Miller’s grade. He quickly referenced the answer sheet, marked a score, and handed each graduate a certification card - a miniature diploma.
“It doesn’t matter how you did because you did it yourself,” Haas exclaimed at a young child as he waited for the grader’s mark.
After the room had cleared, Miller confided that the lowest score was an 80, from the youngest pupil. One student had a perfect 100.
He was proud that every person read aloud from the manual. In his 2,700 students, he said, only three have failed the test. To him, it spoke to the caliber of the class.
But hunting is a serious responsibility. What if the test was too easy?
“If you didn’t have the class and you took that test, could you pass it?”
“There’s a lot of common sense in there,” Miller acknowledged.
And there could be - but common sense doesn’t dictate how to confront every situation in the wild.
A code of ethics does.