New Mexico Hunter Safety Courses See Variety of Students

June 24, 2009

Gabriel Garcia tried for years to get his daughter, Mariah, into the hunter safety education course offered by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.

But the classes always filled up within minutes of opening.

He wanted Mariah, now 14, to learn gun safety.

“I wasn’t so interested in her becoming an avid outdoorsman or hunter. I knew approaching her teen years, there might be a time when she’s around firearms and she needed to know how to be safe around them,” Garcia said.

This year, he finally got her signed up for the two-day course in March. She was among 40 students and only three girls who completed the class. She placed third among her 11- to 14-year-old age group with a combined average of 98 on the written and field tests.

Although men in the New Mexico hunter safety class outnumbered women and girls 3-to-1 in the last three years, the number of women and girls enrolling in the course is stable.

Anyone under age 18 must take a hunter safety course in order to hunt with a firearm. Many adults take it as well if they want to hunt in Colorado, where a safety course is required of all hunters born after 1949.

Garcia sat in on the course with his daughter as a refresher, his third time in the class. “I still learned something,” he said. “People who don’t take a refresher course are actually more dangerous.”

From January to March this year, the state offered 68 hunter safety education classes, said Marty Frentzel, public information officer for the Department of Game and Fish and a certified instructor.

“It’s one of my favorite things, teaching this class. You see kids learning and feel like you make a difference,” Frentzel said.

A November 2008 review of the state’s hunter education program by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the International Hunter Education Association said it was one of the biggest such programs in the nation.

One of the drawbacks to the program is a lack of certified instructors to teach classes, limiting the number offered. Often young people like Mariah have to try repeatedly before getting into one.

Kari Boynton, program manager for the hunter education program, said classes fill up within a day, even those offered in the summer.

Gene Farnum, a retired Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist, has taught hunter safety classes in Santa Fe for eight years.

“There is more demand in Santa Fe than we can accommodate with the number of volunteers we have,” Farnum said.

He said hunter safety classes have been around for decades but weren’t standardized until several years ago. Since New Mexico began offering standardized classes, “the number of hunting accidents has declined dramatically, especially among young hunters,” he said.

Mishandling a firearm causes most hunting accidents, Farnum said.

The two-day hunter education course involves reading a manual, taking a written multiple-choice test and completing a field test carrying an unloaded rifle.

“People have the most trouble, especially the younger ones, with the written multiple-choice test,” Farnum said.

Several students fail each class. The minimum score to pass the written test is 70, and the minimum on the field test is 75 percent.

“Girls usually do very well in the class and often have the highest scores,” Farnum said.

Mariah, who will attend the New Mexico Military Institute in August and wants to be a fighter pilot, said she learned a lot. She learned about gun parts, how to hold a gun and where to shoot an animal so it doesn’t suffer.

“Even if you are not going hunting, it is to your benefit to take the class and learn firearm safety,” Mariah said.

After the class, she told her dad she wanted to try hunting.

“I feel really good about the fact that if she has a gun in her possession she’ll treat it like it is a loaded, lethal weapon,” Garcia said. “I am kind of surprised she wanted to try hunting.”

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