Dennis Erickson has hunted game as varied as white-tailed deer and ruffed grouse for 30 years. Gun safety is important to him. He's never had an accident and never intends to.
So when Erickson, of Wyoming, Minn., accompanied his 11-year-old son, Drew into the woods before dawn Oct. 11 on the first day of the state's early antlerless season -- with Drew toting a 12-gauge Remington pump shotgun outfitted with a rifled slug barrel -- the elder Erickson was confident he could guide his son to a safe outing.
"I feel comfortable teaching him," Erickson said.
The Legislature is betting other parents of 10- and 11-year-olds feel the same when the state's firearms deer season opens on Saturday. A law change last session allows kids that age for the first time in modern history to hunt deer and other big game in Minnesota using high-caliber firearms and slug-shooting shotguns without first passing a hunter education and firearms safety course.
The intent is to hook kids on hunting before they are overly beguiled by computers and other gadgetry, and team sports.
Not everyone thinks it's a good idea -- even though the youngsters must be under direct supervision of an adult licensed hunter, and the older hunters must be within an arm's reach of their protégés.
"The main risk I see," said Capt. Mike Hammer, hunter education coordinator for Department of Natural Resources, "is that for many young kids, the frame of reference for firearms is toy guns, not real guns. And kids playing with toy guns don't care what they point them at. Many don't know the concepts of muzzle control, keeping your finger out of the trigger guard and keeping the safety on. Constant reminders regarding gun safety by an adult would be needed."
A review of Minnesota firearms hunting accident records between 2002 and 2007 suggests Hammer's concern might be warranted.
Minnesotans under age 19 represent a minority of state firearms hunters. But during two years of that six-year period, the 19-and-under age group was the shooter in 50 percent or more of firearms accidents. The figure was as low as about 20 percent in other years.
Youth hunter-accident statistics generally are similar in Wisconsin, where historically hunters under age 18 have been responsible for about a third of hunting accidents.
The American Academy of Pediatrics opposed an effort in that state earlier this year to lower the deer hunting age from 12 to 10. The physicians said 10-year-olds lack the strength, coordination and decision-making ability to hunt safely with a gun.
Minnesota DNR hunter recruitment coordinator Jay Johnson believes statistics linking youth hunters to higher accident rates can be misleading.
"Kids who are under the direct control of older hunters have excellent safety records," he said.
'Barrier' removal sought
Lowering the age at which big game can be hunted in Minnesota, and making hunter education optional -- if only for a youngster's initial year afield -- is part of a nationwide attempt to remove what hunting advocates call barriers to the sport.
A recent study by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) found that for every 100 hunters who leave the sport, only 69 take their place. And while Minnesota is tops in the country in the percentage of its population that hunts or fishes, the state nevertheless also is experiencing a net loss of hunters as baby boomers age and drop out of the sport.
The state's long-held requirement that youth must be at least 12 years old and have passed a hunter education course before they can hunt big game is partially to blame, the foundation said.
Urbanization, busy lifestyles, single-parent families and organized sports also are among often-cited reasons for the decline.
"In Minnesota, it's always been up to the parent when a boy or girl could go hunting with them for small game such as pheasants or ducks," said the DNR's Johnson. "But today, the entry game species for most kids isn't birds, it's deer. It's my personal viewpoint that the determination about when a son or daughter is ready to hunt deer is -- as it is with birds -- best left to a parent.''
Ten-year-old Nick Finken, the son of Dan and Lisa Finken of Brainerd, was also in the woods during Minnesota's two-day early antlerless season.
"If we don't get an interest in hunting going early among kids in this electronic age that we live in, I'm not sure they'll ever develop the interest," Dan Finken said. "Once they get into the early to mid-teen years, if they haven't been exposed to hunting, I'm not sure they can be brought into it."
The elder Finken has hunted 25 years, and Nick has accompanied him in recent seasons, "mostly walking in the woods, scouting for deer and bear baiting."
"This year, when he found out he could actually go hunting, his enthusiasm really went up," Finken said.
Hammer, the DNR hunter education coordinator, said the significant overall reduction in Minnesota firearms hunting accidents in recent decades is due largely to the state's hunter education program, which graduates about 24,000 students annually.
He hopes parents and other adult hunters take seriously their responsibility when mentoring the state's youngest big game hunters.
"The older hunter's primary purpose should not be to fill their tag, or even to carry a gun, but to mentor the young hunter, to constantly talk about zones of fire and muzzle control," Hammer said. "These are best reinforced when the older hunter is alongside the younger hunter, not after something happens.''
Drew Erickson -- who passed a hunter education course this spring even though it wasn't required of him to hunt deer this fall -- didn't bag a whitetail during the antlerless hunt.
Nick Finken was luckier. With his dad alongside him in a tree stand, he spotted a doe the first evening of hunting, walking about 40 yards away.
"Nick said to me, 'Dad, I've got a perfect shot,'" Dan Finken said. "I said, 'OK, pull the hammer back. Whenever you're ready, shoot.'"