Although he was not cited with breaking any laws, Vice President Dick Cheney did not have proper hunting credentials when he accidentally shot a fellow hunter at a private ranch over the weekend, authorities said Monday.
Cheney, an experienced outdoorsman who had a valid out-of-state hunting license, will receive a formal warning for failing to purchase the required $7 stamp for bird hunting, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department said in a statement. The stamp is a new requirement, and the department has issued verbal warnings to hunters, who were apparently unaware that they needed it.
The vice president’s office said in a statement Monday night that his staffers had not known about the stamp requirement and that Cheney had sent a check to Texas to cover the cost.
The accident occurred on a ranch Saturday when the vice president wheeled to shoot at a covey of quail and accidentally sprayed his hunting partner, 78-year-old lawyer Harry Whittington, with shotgun pellets, authorities said.
Whittington, who is being treated for head injuries, was moved out of intensive care at a hospital here Monday and was reported to be in good spirits.
“This was a hunting accident,” said Gilbert San Miguel, chief deputy of the Kenedy County Sheriff’s Office. “There was no alcohol or misconduct.”
But the incident has reverberated worldwide: “Cheney Bags a Lawyer” was the headline in the Herald of Glasgow, Scotland.
And it has forced a White House already under fire for secrecy to explain why it made no mention of the shooting until the ranch owner disclosed it to a local newspaper, 18 hours after the incident.
White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said Monday that the “first priority was making sure that Harry Whittington ... was getting the medical care that he needed. And I think that’s where everybody’s attention should have been focused, and was focused, when the hunting accident took place.”
Still, McClellan deflected the blame away from the vice president, noting that Whittington left the hunt line to retrieve a downed quail and was approaching Cheney from behind.
“The protocol was not followed by Mr. Whittington when it came to notifying the others that he was there,” McClellan said. “And so, you know, unfortunately these type of hunting accidents happen from time to time.”
But hunting experts said that although Whittington should have made his location clear, the vice president should have been keeping track of his companions.
“You’re hunting together; you need to know where everyone is,” said Lawrence G. Keane, general counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
Jeff Hart, an Austin lawyer who hunts quail in Texas, said: “If you pull the trigger, you’re responsible for it, no matter what.... In hunting, the shooter is responsible for knowing where the shot is going. That’s the bottom line.”
Cheney -- known for having testy relations with the media -- on Monday came under criticism from Democrats and Republicans who said the White House should have disclosed the incident immediately.
“It’s news, and it reflects an attitude in this White House of holding back information, of being too clever by half and being secretive,” columnist Robert Novak said on Fox News.
“On the face of it, this looks like something the administration felt the public had no right to know,” Joe Lockhart, who was President Clinton’s press secretary, said in an interview. “I don’t think there’s going to be a bunch of people sitting around saying: ‘I wonder why they waited to tell us.’ But what they will be saying is: ‘I wonder what else they’re not telling us.’ ”
Whittington, a prominent Austin lawyer, and the vice president arrived for a weekend hunting trip Friday night at the 50,000-acre Armstrong Ranch, a well-known retreat for wealthy Texas Republicans 95 miles southwest of Corpus Christi.
The party of 11 hunters set out in two trucks Saturday morning, driving around the mesquite-dotted property and shooting quail until about 12:30 p.m., said Anne Armstrong, co-owner of the ranch. Then they broke for a lunch of antelope, jicama salad and camp bread, washed down with Dr. Pepper.
After lunch, the group split up. Cheney, Whittington and Pamela Pitzer Willeford, U.S. ambassador to Switzerland, went with two of Armstrong’s daughters and pursued quail for several more hours. It was at dusk that Whittington shot a bird and went to retrieve it, taking him behind the vice president.
The medical team that travels with Cheney immediately began ministering to Whittington, who was bleeding profusely from wounds to his face, neck and chest, witnesses said. They packed Whittington into Cheney’s ambulance and drove him to a hospital.
The injuries did not appear to be life-threatening, Armstrong said, because the ambulance paused on the road for several minutes to allow Whittington’s wife to join them.
After being stabilized at a hospital in Kingsville, Whittington was evacuated by helicopter to a larger facility in Corpus Christi -- where he was placed in the intensive care unit. The Secret Service reported the shooting to the Kenedy County Sheriff’s Office; no one from that agency interviewed Cheney until Sunday morning.
The Secret Service said it had turned away one sheriff’s deputy at the ranch the night of the accident because arrangements had been made for Cheney to be interviewed the following morning, Associated Press said.
Armstrong said Cheney had spoken with her Saturday evening about disclosing the incident to the public. “We knew word would get out,” she said. He urged her to tell friends and family first, before word leaked out to the media.
Late Sunday morning, her daughter, Katharine Armstrong, called a reporter from the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, which then reported the shooting on its website.
Peter Banko, administrator of Christos Spohn Memorial Hospital in Corpus Christi, where Whittington was recuperating, said the injured hunter was cracking jokes -- and was baffled by all the publicity. “He’s a true Southern gentleman,” Banko said of Whittington at a Monday news conference. “He’s really amazed, I think, at all the hoopla over this.”
Whittington is a fixture in Texas politics, having worked in Republican campaigns dating to John G. Tower’s senatorial run in the 1960s. He’s known nowadays for a decades-long battle to prevent the city of Austin from building a parking garage over a downtown block that his family owns. The dispute is still being litigated.
The shooting has aroused sympathy for Cheney in South Texas, where many locals hunt and accept that there is always the risk of an accident. “If it happens every once in a while, we’re not alarmed by it,” Carlos Valdez, the local district attorney, said of nonfatal accidental shootings.
There were 30 hunting accidents last year in Texas, which issued 1.1 million hunting licenses.
“You can’t name a sport where accidents don’t happen,” said Leroy Sisco, chief executive of the Texas Trophy Hunters Assn., who said he had been inadvertently sprayed by birdshot several times. “Everybody who hunts understands. It’s just an accident and, thank God, it’s not a serious accident.”
Riccardi reported from Corpus Christi and Gerstenzang from Washington. Times staff writers Lianne Hart in Corpus Christi and Peter Wallsten in Washington contributed to this report.*
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Hit and miss
There were about 850 hunting injuries reported in the U.S. in 2002, down 31% over the last decade. Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally injured his companion with a shotgun, the weapon most commonly involved in hunting accidents.
Weapon involved, 2002
Top reasons for accidental shootings, 2002
Failure to identify target: 15.1%
Shooter swinging on game: 12.9%
Careless handling of firearm: 11.9%
Victim out of sight of shooter: 8.5%
Fall while climbing in/out of position: 7.8%
Sources: International Hunter Education Assn., Associated Press