Getting Shot

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.

12 thoughts on “Getting Shot”

  1. There is a sizeable segment (among which I am not counted) which feels that any accident has attached a human agent who is responsible (and liable for redress). The idea that unforseen events, unforseable flaws, and improbable alignments need fault is irrelevant to that crowd.

  2. Well, tort lawyers have to find business somewhere.

    Greed & spite aren’t the only ingredients; people find the importance of unpredictable and ultimately unfair chance scary. Yes, for we baby boomers, life has been remarkably easy. But the truth is, the more control we think we have, the harsher that truth seems when we come hard up against it.

  3. I tell this story as a joke, though it’s true. Actually I have more than one story along these lines, but they are not exactly the same thing.

    I was in the service, and on pretty much every base, you have the rifle range left, and the pistol range right. If you are on the pistol range, you fire at metal targets, and with the relatively low velocity and mass, you don’t need the deep deep . . .how you spell? birms? to catch the rounds, especially since, _I think_ the metal targets are designed to send the rounds skyward for the purposes of eliminating their force.

    Well, we were doing a range walk through (always happens, so that you know the various rules of the range) and I’m marching along like a good little “Bird” private (at that time) when I feel something that was akin to mosquito bite, a LARGE masquitoe, but not especially painful, a moment later, my ass was on fire. Somewhere I still have it, we were marching, and in a random FLUKE! the 9mil round just HAPPENED to have bounced in just such a way to hit the back of my neck, slide down my collar, and then through the waiste of my pants, and between the cheeks of my ass.

    No comparisson, just a random story. The other ones consist of bullet “shrapnel” that hit the wood birm burm spelling? and regularly bounced off of everyones head at least once while, while they were maintaining the “butts”

  4. Keep in mind, however, you weren’t on the scene with Mr. Cheney. Each of us can conjure matters of a sort, similar in this instance, from the course of our own lives, to justify, to explain or to understand, perhaps, this or that. It may add to the conversational mix, ultimately, but in the scheme of things, none will not mean a hill of beans. Let’s remind ourselves, too, accidents, though we may seek to avoid them, do occur. —Life blinks and then we cry.

  5. Enoch,

    I don’t know the details of the shooting. My recollections were prompted by a commentator on Samizdata who said that ANY shooting accident was always the result of gross negligence on the part of someone. I know from personal experience that this is not true.

    If forced to bet, I would however, lay money on the alinement of trivial mistakes as the best explaination for this incident for no other reason than both Cheney and Whitterson have both been hunting for over 50 years without getting killed. That suggest they are not habitually careless because otherwise they would be dead.

  6. J. Scott,

    Get real. He wasn’t in Reno.

    Shannon is, IMO, almost certainly correct. The only thing that I believe should be added is that these are men with some years on the odometer. Eyesight and reflexes are not what they once were. Cheney undoubtedly can’t believe he didn’t see Whittington and Whittington undoubtedly can’t believe he didn’t see Chaney swinging the shotgun toward him and duck.

  7. It is true that all accidents are preventable (Shannon’s near miss is a case of an accident beign prevented “accidentally” – experience and training is what teaches us to prevent these on purpose). Some have made the leap to say then, that there are no accidents; only negligence.

    We seem to know intuitively that this is too harsh – but on what basis?

  8. Well, this is wandering into Descartes territory, aren’t we? Sure, *any* ‘accident’ is/was preventable *if* the proper person/people properly accessed and understood the proper information in a timely manner.
    Unfortunately, being human don’t work that way. It implies unlimited resources. Thus, ‘accidents’. We do learn to avoid some of them by taking proper shortcuts or rules-of-thumb. Thus, look before you shoot. Doesn’t mean we *always* follow them.

  9. Jorg identifies exactly the right thing: We don’t have perfect information or perfect information-processing. Therefore, mistakes will sometimes be made.

    Someone is negligent if they *should have* had the right information, or *should have* processed it differently, or *should have* acted on it differently, but failed on one of those counts because they just didn’t put in the effort. (In a legal sense, “should have” implies “a randomly selected reasonable person placed in the same situation would be overwhelmingly likely to.”)

  10. I think a big cultural dividing line in way that different people look at these types of incidents comes in the way they have been indoctrinated to look at quality information.

    (I’m generalizing like crazy here)

    People educated outside the humanities in technical, scientific or business (and the school of hard knocks) look at all information as approximate, imperfect and dynamic. In their experiences in the world, information always has a fuzzy edge and it evolves over time. With this view of information, it is easy to understand how accidents “just happen” because people have to make snap decisions in real-time based on imperfect information.

    For people educated in the humanities, however, information has a more platonic quality and is largely static. Information just lays their waiting to be patiently perused. With this view of information it is difficult to understand how any accident could occur absent carelessness because people can spend as much time as they want making decisions based on near perfect information.

    I see a lot of the latter type of thinking in lawyers talking about product liability. They have looked over the information about a product in hindsight, when it is static and then judge the people who looked at the information in real-time when it was dynamic and find them wanting.

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