Closed hunting reports a setback in openness

Published 6:00 am Tuesday, March 7, 2006

While bills introduced in the Legislature may have goodintentions, a bill now on its way to conference committee is justplan bad. The bill, HB 929, would allow all hunting accidentreports to be confidential and no longer part of the publicrecord.

In other words, if two hunters are walking through the woods andone of them suddenly becomes a victim of a gunshot wound or in someway is injured, the information surrounding that incident is sealedup and off limits to public knowledge.

Sounds harmless, so why is that bad? Well, we can think ofseveral reasons. What if the parties involved actually are involvedin something less than honorable – say head lighting, poaching orroadside hunting. An innocent landowner is left in a position ofnot being able to use evidence to protect his property.

Or let’s say questions arise as to the nature of an accident.Closed records mean more questions. While Vice President DickCheney’s recent hunting accident in Texas received more than itsshare of necessary attention, think of the attention andspeculation the vice president would have received if all the factshad been sealed.

Already, incident reports in some county sheriff departments arehandled as secret and out of public view; adding hunting accidentreports to that list just makes the problem worse. Ever wonder whysome crimes or incidents appear in the newspaper and others do not?HB 929 will make the situation worse.

Our understanding is that the purpose of the bill, according toa spokesman for the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, isthey have a problem with lawyers wanting accident reports and fearpotential lawsuits against gun manufacturers. Should auto accidentreports, too, be filed in secrecy to stop lawsuits againstautomakers? While we also are opposed to lawsuit abuse, such issueshave already been addressed by Legislature and signed into law.

Our legal system’s foundation is built on the concept ofopenness and fairness. Finding ways to close the public record onlychips away at that foundation. Hopefully, more reasonable mindswill prevail as HB 929 heads into conference committee and thepublic’s right to know will be protected.