WASHINGTON—The White House blamed the 78-year-old man whom Vice President Dick Cheney shot during a weekend quail hunting trip in Texas for the incident, as officials struggled Monday to explain why they waited nearly 24 hours before making the news public.
White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan tried to absolve Cheney of blame for shooting wealthy Austin lawyer Harry Whittington, saying that hunting "protocol was not followed by Mr. Whittington when it came to notifying others that he was there. And so, you know, unfortunately, these types of hunting accidents happen from time to time."
Several hunting experts were skeptical of McClellan's explanation. They said Cheney might have violated a cardinal rule of hunting: Know your surroundings before you pull the trigger.
"Particularly identify the game that you are shooting and particularly identify your surroundings, that it's safe to shoot," said Mark Birkhauser, the incoming president of the International Hunter Education Association, a group of fish and wildlife agencies. "Every second, you're adjusting your personal information that it is a safe area to shoot or it's not a safe area to shoot."
Safe-hunting rules published by the National Rifle Association and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department echo Birkhauser's advice.
"Be absolutely sure you have identified your target beyond any doubt," the NRA says in the gun-safety rules on its Web site. "Equally important, be aware of the area beyond your target. This means observing your prospective area of fire before you shoot. Never fire in a direction in which there are people or any other potential for mishap. Think first. Shoot second."
On its 10 Commandments of Shooting Safety, Texas Parks and Wildlife lists being sure of your target as the third commandment. "Know what is in front and behind your target. Determine that you have a safe backstop or background."
Cheney has a Texas non-resident hunting license, but he failed to get a $7 stamp that's required to hunt game birds, the vice president's office said in a statement Monday night. He has since sent a check to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to buy the stamp, the statement said.
Whittington was listed in stable condition Monday at a hospital in Corpus Christi, Texas, with birdshot wounds to his face, neck and chest. The shooting occurred about 5:30 p.m. Saturday at the Armstrong Ranch, a 50,000-acre spread in south Texas owned by friends of the president.
White House and Texas law enforcement officials haven't provided a detailed account of the incident. Katharine Armstrong, one of the ranch's owners, said Cheney, Whittington and another hunter got out of their vehicle to shoot a covey of quail. The third member of the hunting party was the U.S. ambassador to Switzerland, Pamela Willeford, a Texan and a Bush family friend.
Whittington shot a bird and went to get it, breaking from Cheney and Willeford. Armstrong said Whittington then came up from behind without signaling, and as a covey flushed Cheney wheeled and fired his .28-gauge shotgun, hitting Whittington.
Whittington was tended at the scene by Cheney's medical detail before being taken to the hospital by ambulance.
Though the shooting happened Saturday afternoon, it didn't become public knowledge until Armstrong notified the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, her local paper, at midday Sunday. The White House then confirmed news media requests for verification.
The lag between the shooting and the reporting of it prompted questions about why a private citizen, not the government, was disclosing a shooting involving the vice president.
McClellan said Monday that Cheney's staff didn't immediately inform the media because the first priority was tending to Whittington's health.
McClellan said White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove told Bush around 8 p.m. Saturday that Cheney had shot Whittington, but McClellan said he himself didn't learn that Cheney was the shooter until around 6 a.m. Sunday. He said he urged Cheney's office to get the information out as quickly as possible. The news broke nationally about 3:45 p.m. EST Sunday.
Lee Anne McBride, Cheney's press secretary, talked Sunday about Whittington's condition and said the vice president had spoken with him and was pleased with his condition. But she referred most questions—from the names of everyone in the hunting party to what type of weapon Cheney had fired—to Armstrong.
"The vice president thought that Mrs. Armstrong should be the first one to go out there and provide that information to the public, which she did," McClellan said.
Cheney's office has a history of not sharing information with the public. Last month, it refused to specify the nature of a foot injury for which he was given medication that caused water retention and shortness of breath and sent him to the hospital.
"He's secretive by nature," said Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "It's a dumb thing for officials to do, especially someone as experienced as Cheney. Just imagine what Jon Stewart, Jay Leno and David Letterman are going to do to him for days. It's a self-inflicted wound."
For more information about hunting safety, visit the National Rifle Association at www.nra.org, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department at www.tpwd.state.tx.us, and the International Hunter Education Association at www.ihea.com. For the first two sites, key in the search words "hunter safety" to access the rules.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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