WASHINGTON (AP) — First the shooting, now the inevitable jokes.
"I would be proud to hunt with the vice president — cautious, but proud," said Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, a Democrat, beating the late-night television comedians to the punch.
Vice President Dick Cheney wasn't joking — or talking at all in public — about Saturday's accident in which he peppered fellow hunter Harry Whittington with birdshot in the face, neck and chest as he fired on a covey of quail in Texas.
There were questions about Cheney's adherence to hunting safety practices and the White House's failure to disclose the accident in a timely way. And 48 hours after the shooting, the vice president's office revealed that Cheney and Whittington lacked $7 upland game bird hunting stamps and were given warning citiations by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for violating the law.
Cheney had a $125 nonresident hunting license, the vice president's office said Monday night in a statement, and has sent a $7 check to cover the cost of the stamp.
Cheney, an experienced hunter, avoided reporters Monday by leaving an Oval Office meeting with United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan before the press was escorted in.
President Bush was told about Cheney's involvement in the accident shortly before 8 p.m. Saturday — about an hour after it occurred — but the White House did not disclose the accident until Sunday afternoon, and then only in response to press questions. Press secretary Scott McClellan said he did not know until Sunday morning that Cheney had shot someone.
Facing a press corps upset that news had been withheld, McClellan said, "I think you can always look back at these issues and look at how to do a better job."
Katharine Armstrong, the owner of the ranch where the shooting occurred, said she told Cheney on Sunday morning that she was going to inform the local paper, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. She said he agreed, and the newspaper reported it on its Web site Sunday afternoon.
Secret Service spokesman Eric Zahren said that about an hour after Cheney shot Whittington, the head of the Secret Service's local office called the Kenedy County sheriff to report the accident.
"They made arrangements at the sheriff's request to have deputies come out and interview the vice president the following morning at 8 a.m. and that indeed did happen," Zahren said.
At least one deputy showed up at the ranch's front gate later in the evening and asked to speak to Cheney but was turned away by the Secret Service, Zahren said. There was some miscommunication that arrangements had already been made to interview the vice president, he said.
Gilbert San Miguel, chief deputy sheriff for Kenedy County, said the report had not been completed Monday and that it was being handled as a hunting accident, although he would not comment about what that meant they were investigating.
He said his department's investigation had found that alcohol was not a factor in the shooting, but he would not elaborate about how that had been determined. The Texas Parks and Wildlife hunting accident report also said neither Cheney nor Whittington appeared to be under the influence of intoxicants or drugs.
Whittington, a prominent Republican attorney in the Texas capital of Austin, was in stable condition at Christus Spohn Hospital Corpus Christi-Memorial and was moved from intensive care to a "step-down unit" Monday. Doctors decided to leave several birdshot pellets lodged in his skin rather than try to remove them.
Armstrong said the accident occurred toward the end of the hunt, as darkness was encroaching and they were preparing to go inside. Whittington was retrieving a bird he had shot that fell into the tall grasses.
Cheney and another hunter, Pamela Willeford, the U.S. ambassador to Switzerland, moved on to another covey of quail — Armstrong estimated it was roughly 100-150 yards away — and Cheney fired on a bird just as Whittington rejoined them. She said Whittington was in tall grass and thick brush about 30 yards away, which made it difficult for Cheney to see him, although both men were wearing bright-orange safety vests.
Armstrong said when she first saw Cheney's security detail running toward the scene, she feared Cheney had had a heart attack.
"The first thing that crossed my mind was he had a heart problem," she said.
She said Cheney stayed "close but cool" while also the agents and medical personnel treated Whittington, then took him off via ambulance to the hospital. Later, the hunting group sat down for dinner while Whittington was being treated, receiving updates from a family member who was at the hospital. Armstrong described Cheney's demeanor during dinner as "very worried" about Whittington.
Duane Harvey, president of the Wisconsin Hunter Education Instructors Association, said if Whittington had made his presence known "that would have been a polite thing to do." But, he added, "it's still the fault upon the shooter to identify his target and what is beyond it."
Despite all the safety tips and training, hunting accidents are an unfortunate part of the sport. In Texas, there were 30 accidents and two hunting deaths last year, according to the state Parks and Wildlife Department. National figures kept by the International Hunter Education Association show 744 shooting accidents, with 74 deaths, in 2002, the last year for which figures were available. Twenty-six accidents involving quail hunting were reported.
The association estimates there are 15.7 million hunters who will spend about 250 million days hunting in the United States this year.
Associated Press writers Elizabeth White in Washington, T.A. Badger in Sarita, Texas, Jim Vertuno in Austin, Lynn Brezosky in Corpus Christi and Dan Lewerenz in Cheyenne, Wyo., contributed to this report.
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The White House: http://www.whitehouse.gov
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