Vice President Dick Cheney’s shooting of a hunting partner reminded me of an incident from my childhood.
When I was a teenager I went out one summer afternoon to do a little target shooting with a .22 rifle.
I had a clean range. The land where I set up lay in an immature orchard divided into tiers leading downward into a creek bottom. On the other side of the creek was a sheer soft earth cliff that rose above the level of the tier that held my target. I stuck a 1×4 board at the edge of a tier and put my firing position on the next tier up. So, not only did I have absolutely clear space behind my target but also the general trajectory was downward. The bullet wasn’t going anywhere unexpected.
I set the board and visually checked down range for people or animals and it was clean. Then I walked back about 40 yards to my firing position. As I drew a bead on the top of the board, it moved somehow. I blinked and hesitated and then saw that the top of the board had changed shape and had grown kind of roundish. I pulled up the rifle and it became immediately clear that the distortion at the top of the board was a human head. There was a dirt road running by the orchard and it curved just a bit below the tier holding the target. A man was walking up the road and the drop of the land put his head exactly even with and exactly behind my target!
The man was a neighbor of ours who had been out on his property looking for arrowheads. He had crossed our fence line so that he could walk back up the road instead of cutting back across country on his own land. He had crossed onto our land and into my down range in the time it took me to walk from the target to my firing position. Had I been just a fraction of a second quicker on the trigger he might have been killed.
This is an example of an incident in which nobody does anything grossly wrong, but even so a freak confluence of events and conditions almost created a tragedy. I had selected and policed my range properly. Our neighbor hadn’t broken any major safety rule by crossing a fence line. Even if he had, to get shot he had to traverse a length of road about 3 yards long at exactly the right moment. When I told him I had nearly shot him he just shrugged and said it would have been his own fault for being in an unexpected place.
Many accidents in all types of situations do not arise from gross negligence or carelessness but rather by improbable alignment of a series of otherwise minor errors or deviations. I strongly suspect that we will find with Cheney’s incident that both Cheney and Whittington both made errors in locating the firing line that separately were trivial but in combination got Whittington shot.