Just before Tyler Kales was led from a Mount Vernon, Wash., courtroom to begin serving his sentence earlier this month, he apologized to the family of his victim.
“All I want to say is how sorry I am,” the reed-thin 15-year-old said in a quavering voice to relatives of Pamela Almli, 54, who died instantly when Kales mistook her for a bear and shot her in the head Aug. 2, 2008, while hunting in the fog in western Washington's Skagit County.
Kales, convicted by a judge of second-degree manslaughter in June, received 30 days in juvenile detention at his July 10 sentencing.
The case highlighted issues about hunting on public land in Washington that were news to some state residents. First, hunting in close proximity to hikers was perfectly legal. Second, there was no requirement for trailhead signs to warn hikers like Almli that there were hunters in the area.
And while Kales was not old enough to have driven himself to the trailhead, in Washington state there is no minimum age for hunting without adult supervision as Kales, then 14, was doing that day with his 16-year-old brother.
Washington is far from alone in allowing children to hunt with firearms on public lands without adult supervision, an msnbc.com review of state hunting regulations found:
- Seven states — Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Vermont and Washington — set no minimum age for solo hunting.
- In Texas, kids can hunt alone when they are 9.
- In Alaska, Louisiana and Tennessee, the minimum age for unsupervised hunting is 10, in Missouri it’s 11, and in nine other states it’s 12.
That's a total of 21 states in which kids can hunt alone at age 12 or younger. And in 19 of them, young hunters afield by themselves may pursue any game — big or small — that is in season. Laws on hunter education and licensing vary from state to state. And federal laws prohibit anyone under the age of 18 from buying a rifle or shotgun. No one under 21 may buy a handgun.
While low minimum hunting ages in some states and a complete lack of them in others may come as a surprise to non-hunters, they are supported by many members of the hunting community who say that when kids begin hunting, alone or supervised, should be up to their parents.
“I was very surprised” by the lack of a minimum hunting age, said Washington state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, a Seattle Democrat who hikes often with her husband and their golden retriever on the ubiquitous trails of the Evergreen State. A previous minimum solo hunting age of 14 in Washington was stricken by a 1994 law.
“Right now you could have a 6-year-old get a license and hunt bear,” Kohl-Welles said.
Also amazed was Kales’ defense attorney, Roy Howson, who favors a minimum age of at least 16 for solo hunting and argued that the boy should not have been charged with a crime at all. “Wasn’t this bound to happen at some point?” he asked. “If kids are allowed to hunt, sooner or later you’re likely to have something of this sort happen.”
Working with the Washington Trails Association, a hiker advocacy group, Kohl-Welles introduced a bill to set a minimum age of 16 for solo hunting in the state. The bill was bottled up this year by some lawmakers who wanted the age to be set at 14, but Kohl-Welles said she will push it again next year.
The lack of a minimum unsupervised hunting age is “a gaping hole,” said Jonathan Guzzo, the trails association’s advocacy director. “From our perspective, we viewed it as common sense. If we’re telling people, ‘You can’t drive a car unaccompanied until you’re 16,’ you shouldn’t be going into the woods with a gun until you’re 16.”
Guzzo stressed that his group is not opposed to hunting. “Hunters make huge contributions to public lands statewide and we think they are historical users of the landscape who serve an important purpose,” he said. “But we have more understanding of the limits of the human brain. Young people do not have the judgment that adults have. For the most part, 14-year-olds do not have the judgment that a 16-year-old has.”
On the national level, Guzzo’s comments won support from Jim Kessler, policy director and co-founder of the progressive think-tank Third Way who previously spent four years at Americans for Gun Safety. Both groups seek tighter gun laws but are not opposed to hunting.
“I find it shocking actually that there aren’t laws that prohibit unsupervised hunting by minors,” said Kessler. “For a lot of families, hunting is passing on values from fathers to sons and it’s about responsibility and there are a lot of good lessons there, but it is far too much responsibility to give to a child or a minor teen, far too much responsibility. You need an adult there.”
Worries about the sport's future
But others don’t see it that way, especially many in the hunting community who are concerned that limits on hunting ages are reducing their sport’s numbers and threatening its future.
One group, Families Afield, a coalition of hunting groups that was organized with the specific goal of encouraging youth hunting, notes that since its formation in 2004 some 28 states have changed laws and rules, including lowering hunting ages. “Parents, not politics, should decide an appropriate hunting age for their children,” says the group’s Web site, which stresses hunter education and safety, and advocates no minimum age for young hunters who are supervised by adults.
Families Afield spokesman Rob Sexton said the coalition has no “official position” on minimum ages for unsupervised youth hunting. But the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance, a member group of Families Afield for which Sexton is the vice president of governmental relations, opposed the Washington legislation largely because it considered it “a knee-jerk response to a tragedy,” he said.
“We hate the thought that the law would be changed on an anecdotal situation as opposed to an overall finding that would justify such change,” said Sexton. It’s really parents of minor hunters who must make the call, even when they are older than the law requires, he said. “For instance, my oldest kid is 15 and I don’t have him hunt alone. … He’s just not ready, but I’ve hunted with younger kids who are.”
On its Web site, Families Afield cites numerous statistics and studies to support its position that hunting is not dangerous for properly trained participants. One 2002 study concludes that adult hunters are involved in 10 times as many accidents as all youth hunters, suggesting young hunters are actually statistically safer since they make up 12 percent of the entire hunting population. Adult hunters are blamed for 32 times as many as accidents as young hunters who are supervised, according to the study by the Hunter Incident Clearinghouse.
Tim Lawhern, new president of the International Hunter Education Association and the chief of hunter education in Wisconsin, said more recent statistics are even more favorable to young hunters. In his own state, while young people historically accounted for a third of all hunting accidents, much higher than their proportion of all hunters, that dropped to 13 percent last year and just 7 percent in 2007, he said.
More pressure on parents
The reason? “It’s just not cool to be involved in a hunting accident,” Lawhern said. “More people are paying attention to their kids when they’re out there doing that.”
Lawhern, who plans to focus on recruiting more young hunters in his role as IHEA president, sees no need for the government to set minimum hunting ages, whether kids are alone or supervised. “I think the important thing to remember is it’s the parent’s responsibility until they’re 18,” he said. In states with no minimum ages, “There’s no significant reports of there being a problem with young people hunting. Their incident rates are no different than anywhere else in the country.”
The Washington state case, Lawhern said, is a horrible tragedy but “that’s one incident out of how many millions of hunters around the country? … There are a lot of things we do in life when people are making decisions that could end tragically. … There’s more people injured and killed playing football.”
Kessler of Third Way said gun-rights activists and hunting enthusiasts involved with groups like Families Afield and the National Rifle Association make it unlikely laws to raise hunting ages will pass in Washington or anywhere else.
“It’s a powerful lobby,” he said. For instance, “If you did a poll in Washington or any state, 95 percent would support 16 over 14 (as a minimum solo hunting age). But the people who really care about this are the other 5 percent and that’s the way the gun issue works. They feel it’s affecting their lives, so the intensity of their feeling about this issue is much greater than for other people.”
The NRA, the nation’s largest and most powerful gun-rights group, also believes parents, not lawmakers, should decide the appropriate age at which their children should begin hunting but did not respond to an msnbc.com inquiry on whether or not it favors a minimum age for unsupervised hunting by kids.
Advocates of minimum age requirements for solo hunters said the rules also protect the young hunters themselves. In the Washington case, said Guzzo of the trails association, the slain hiker and her family are not the only victims. The young hunter, Tyler Kales, “has to live with his judgment error for the rest of his life. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.”
Kales’ defense attorney, Howson, agreed. Calling his client an “exceptional” young man who simply made a tragic mistake that likely would have been avoided if an adult had been present, Howson, a former prosecutor, said, “There’s a little bit of blame for all of us in here but it’s all going to come down on this one little kid.”