There’s no telling how many lives Howard Gardner of Richland has saved.
In 1957, he organized the first hunter education class in the Tri-Cities on behalf of the Richland Rod and Gun Club.
He’s taught youth and adults how to hunt safely, legally and ethically every year since. That’s 60 years.
It’s a record for the state, according to a letter of commendation he recently received from James Unsworth, director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
In the early 1960s about 40 hunters a year were injured, primarily shot, Gardner said. Usually four to five of the incidents were fatal.
You should feel extremely proud that you played a significant role in that decline, and the citizens of Washington owe you a debt of gratitude.
James Unsworth, director Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife
But in the last hunting season, just four hunters were reported shot. One died.
“You should feel extremely proud that you played a significant role in that decline, and the citizens of Washington owe you a debt of gratitude,” Unsworth said.
The state Legislature passed a law in 1957 requiring anyone younger than 17 to take hunter education to get a hunting license.
“I thought it was great,” Gardner said.
He was a member of the National Rifle Association, which was promoting hunter education requirements to reduce accidents.
The state law was later changed to require hunter’s education as a condition of a hunting license for anyone born after Jan. 1, 1972. In addition, wearing blaze orange was made a requirement in the mid-1990s, also helping reduce accidents.
Since Gardner organized the first classes in 1957 as the president of the Richland Rod and Gun Club, the group has been as faithful to the cause as Gardner. It continues as a sponsor of the classes, he said.
He did not teach every class in the beginning, just stepping in when he could not find a volunteer.
One fatal hunting incident was reported in the 2015-16 hunting season in Washington. A 45-year-old hunter shot his 31-year-old nephew with a muzzleloader in Whitman County, according to state records. The shooter said he shot at a deer and missed, and the bullet then struck his nephew.
In recent years he helps out with classes about four times a year, most recently serving as one of several volunteer teachers at a free, week-long class offered in Pasco to coincide with spring break.
“When you bring it up, push off the safety,” he said, monitoring student after student as they lifted a .223 bolt-action rifle and looked down the scope on the second day of class.
“Can you see the cross hairs?” he asked. “They say shoot with both eyes open. I could never do it because I didn’t learn that way.”
The main message of the class? “Muzzle control,” as the students called out at the end of one class day.
The kids who take the class have not changed in 60 years, Gardner said. They were eager to learn in 1957 and they are eager to learn in 2017.
But there are more women who have discovered hunting than in the 1950s, he said.
Students are assessed on knowledge, skill and attitude.
The three nonfatal hunting incidents in the 2015-16 season in Washington included two cases of hunters shooting themselves, one in the hand and the other in the calf. In the third incident, a teen was shot in the hand when a rifle was passed over a vehicle seat.
There is no age requirement. A mix of youth — one as young as 7 — and adults attended the spring break class. When a student is old enough to take a hunter safety class is a parent’s responsibility to determine.
Knowledge is assessed by a written test. Skill, particularly if a student is handling a firearm safely, is assessed in a simulated pheasant hunt on range day, the sixth day of class.
Range day is not a requirement of the state hunter’s education class, but it is a requirement of the Richland Rod and Gun Club classes.
“We think it helps,” Gardner said.
Attitude is assessed throughout the class.
“No shenanigans,” is how Ron Ruth, the chief instructor for the Richland Rod and Gun Club summed it up.
Pointing an unloaded gun at another person is grounds for failure. So is not following directions.
Bottom line is that if instructors would not feel comfortable with a student as a hunting partner, the student will have to repeat the class to qualify for a hunting license.
If you teach people to handle firearms safely, you reduce accidents.
Howard Gardner, 60-year hunter education instructor
Hunters shoot themselves in about 40 percent of hunting accidents, and shoot a hunting partner in about 30 percent, Gardner said.
To Ruth’s knowledge, a graduate of a Richland Rod and Gun Club hunter education class has never had a shooting accident during a hunt.
Next week Gardner, a retired engineer, will turn 88.
Besides teaching hunting, he works on a “Keep Hope Afloat” life preserver project. And he hunts and fishes.
He hunts for pheasant, deer and antelope on trips to Montana and doves, coyotes and gray diggers in Washington. In the spring he fishes for smallmouth bass in the Columbia River.
When school ends in June, he expects to be teaching another hunter’s education class.
“I never set out to set a record for teaching, but it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “If you teach people to handle firearms safely, you reduce accidents.”