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The widow of a slain hunter wants safety classes for all licensed hunters in Oregon. The number of fatal shootings isn't large, but then, she's ...

Aiming for ZERO

More than 300,000 hunters will venture into the woods and waters of Oregon this fall, and LeAnn Peabody wishes every one of them would remember her husband, Rusty.

A veteran woodsman, Thomas Russell Rusty Peabody was shot and killed last October near Diamond Lake by an overzealous hunter who mistook him for an elk.

It was a textbook example of how a single lapse in safety can turn deadly. But in Oregon, there is no such textbook when it comes to hunter safety for adults.

Only teenagers are required to take an approved hunter education course, while adults can hunt legally without as much as one minute of instruction.

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It's a shame that it's easier to get a hunting license than a driver's license, says LeAnn Peabody, 38, of Eagle Point. Every person should have to go through hunter education. Hunters need good education, not just what grandpa taught you.

My daughter Kimberly still cries at night, asking why she can't have her dad back, she says. The last thing I want to see happen this year is to see more widows and more orphans.

Forty years after Oregon enacted its current hunter-education rule, Peabody wants the state to expand it to include everyone, not just teens.

She not only would like to see every adult take and pass the hunter education course, but she believes hunters should be recertified in their safety proficiency every five years.

The idea draws sympathy from some of Oregon's fish and wildlife policy leaders, such as Don Denman, who likes the concept of mandatory education but wonders if such a program could be crafted and funded.

I certainly don't quarrel with the idea that hunter education would be good for all of us, whether we're 37, 67 or 12, says Denman, a Medford attorney who sits on the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission. But it comes down to the practicality of whether the Legislature would fund it so it would work. Well, probably not.

Of the 44 states with hunter education requirements, Oregon is one of the more lax in its rules governing who is allowed to hunt, according to the International Hunter Education Association.

Most states require people born after a certain date to pass a hunter safety course or produce a valid hunting license. In Arkansas, for example, any new hunter younger than 25 must pass a course. In Colorado, the cut-off age is 53.

California and Rhode Island require hunter education courses for first-time hunters, as do five Canadian provinces. Six states, including Michigan, Utah and Arizona, have no education requirements.

Oregon's 1963 rule requires that hunters under the age of 18 take one hunter education course that includes at least 12 hours of classroom instruction. They must also pass a written test as well as a live-fire exercise on a shooting range. The courses are taught by a cadre of 1,260 volunteers statewide.

When the law was enacted by the Oregon Legislature, shooting accidents were relatively high. In 1965, there were 74 shooting accidents, 12 of them fatal, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, which administers the hunter education program for about &

36;227,000 a year.

Since then, the numbers have declined regularly but the ratios of fatal accidents is on the rise. Last year, three of the six hunting accidents resulted in deaths.

Over the past decade, hunters tended to get safer as they got older, but only to a point.

Hunters 19 years and younger caused 20 accidents in that span, while those 30-39 caused 10. But hunters in their 40s caused 20 accidents and those in their 50s caused eight.

These people who have hunted 20-30 years and nothing's happened, says Lanny Fujishin, the ODFW's hunter-ed program director. They get complacent, then all of a sudden they let their guard down. And it bites them.

It bit Rusty Peabody on Oct. 19 in the Umpqua National Forest near Diamond Lake.

The 42-year-old Peabody was a Gulf War veteran and lifelong Rogue Valley resident who worked in a mill to support his wife and four daughters while spending as much free time outdoors as possible.

My husband lived and breathed hunting and fishing, Peabody says. Camouflage was what he was comfortable in.

Dressed in camouflage that day and hunting alone, Peabody was packing out the head of an elk he had just shot.

Leslie Donald Baker, 59, of Central Point, had stopped his pickup to urinate along the roadside when he spied antlers moving among the trees, according to Douglas County Sheriff's Department reports.

As Baker took his gun out of his pickup, Peabody reached his parked truck and placed the elk head on the ground several feet away, police said. The two were about 65 yards from each other when Baker fired at Peabody still thinking he was an elk, police said.

Shooting before being sure of the target is one of the cardinal sins railed against in hunter education courses.

Obviously, (Baker) was not sure of his target, Fujishin says.

Hunter education students also are encouraged to wear blaze orange ' which is not required in Oregon ' so other hunters can more easily identify them, Fujishin says.

That may have been another thing that could have saved his life, Fujishin says.

LeAnn Peabody says the onus fell solely on Baker to identify his target.

In my husband's case, it wouldn't have mattered if he was wearing a red light on his head, Peabody says. Mr. Baker didn't know what he was shooting at.

If Oregonians were required to be tested regularly, such as every five years, for their hunter-safety proficiency, perhaps her husband would be alive, she says.

Every day I wake up and I can't believe this has happened, she says. I don't want anybody to go through this. That's why the rules have to change.

They should have to prove they have safe hunting skills to be out there, Peabody says.

The hunter education program now sports about 600 active volunteer teachers who log about 17,000 volunteer hours to certify about 6,800 new hunters annually, Fujishin says.

Denman believes changing to a mandatory program with regular re-certifications likely would overtax the volunteer system, thus requiring state instructors at an unknown cost.

It's a good idea, Denman says. Whether it saves lives or reduces injuries, I don't know. But I feel for her.

Baker earlier this month pleaded no contest to a charge of criminally negligent homicide for killing Peabody. He was sentenced to two years' probation, fined &

36;2,500 and had his hunting privileges revoked for a decade. Baker must also serve 600 hours of community service, some of which will be spent addressing students in a hunter education class.

Baker declined to be interviewed.

Though Baker's sentencing has helped bring closure to the Peabodys, their struggle continues.

Some family members had wanted a tougher sentence for Baker. Peabody, however, says she's relieved the trial is over so she can focus on healing and fixing what she sees is a flawed system.

I don't know if there is a sentence that's enough, LeAnn Peabody says. But that's a tremendous burden Mr. Baker has to carry with him the rest of his life.

For every one of these incidents, there are two families destroyed, including the family of the man behind the gun, she says. Just this one instance has destroyed a lot of lives.

That's why we need to aim for zero deaths.

LeAnn Peabody, 38, of Eagle Point, and her daughter Kimberly, 7, hold a portrait of Thomas Russell 'Rusty' Peabody, an avid outdoorsman who was killed while elk hunting last fall. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Mail Tribune Jim Craven