Not that many years ago, the woods of Maine were far less safe during hunting season than they are today. Back in 1952 — the worst in a string of bad years — 70 people suffered gunshot wounds related to hunting. Nineteen of those wounds proved fatal.

Through the 1970s, Maine averaged 37 gunshot “incidents” and four fatalities per year.

That scary trend began to change in 1973, when the state began requiring deer hunters to wear blaze orange clothing while deer hunting.

But the real catalyst for change came in 1988, when a Hermon mother of twins was shot and killed while she stood in her own backyard.

The Karen Wood case drew national attention, and the eventual acquittal of the hunter involved prompted state lawmakers to pass legislation that was long overdue.

Maine’s target identification law was born.

In short, the law puts the onus for safety where it belongs — on the hunter — and requires hunters to know what the target is and what lies beyond that target.

Gone, forever, was the “oops” defense that had handcuffed prosecutors across the state.

I didn’t know anyone was there. I was shooting at a deer.

Back in 2008, Paul Jacques, deputy commissioner of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, told me how convoluted the state’s hunting laws were before Karen Wood was shot.

“Now, you have to remember, at one time if you wounded somebody while hunting, it was a mandatory 10-year loss of license. If you wounded them,” Jacques said at the time. “But if you killed them, and you said you thought it was a deer when you shot them, it was a $200 fine and there wasn’t even a jail sentence imposed.”

That was the “oops” defense at work.

In the years since that strict target identification law was enacted, the change has been monumental.

Nowadays, if 10 shooting incidents are reported, it’s been a bad year. And during an eight-year span from 2001 to 2008, just four fatalities were reported, about as many as you would have expected in any November week back in 1952.

Last week this newspaper ran a heartwarming story about a turkey hunter who was shot by a friend, and who has since forgiven that buddy for the incident that cost him an eye.

He doesn’t want his friend prosecuted.

The victim’s sentiments are touching. His attitude shows us how trivial the petty problems that many of us fixate on really are. His grace teaches us that we all could strive to be more forgiving in our own lives.

With that said, failing to prosecute the shooter would send a horrible message to the state’s hunters, and to the nonhunting public.

Think for a moment: In all but the rarest of cases, when a hunter shoots another person, it is not intentional.

They did not head out the door intending to fire an errant shot that caused injury … or death.

Something happened. Circumstances changed. Mistakes were made. Somebody was shot.

You might even say those cases were “accidents.”

You might.

The state’s game wardens don’t. They prefer the word “incident.” So do I.

In most cases, when a hunter shoots someone, it becomes quite clear that the shooter wasn’t as sure of his target — or what lay beyond it — as he originally thought.

That, according to Maine’s target identification law, means that the case wasn’t an accident at all.

The loophole has been filled. The “oops” defense no longer exists.

If the state only prosecuted assault while hunting cases when the victim is dead (or still holds a grudge against the shooter), we’d all lose.

Over the last 20 years, Maine has made huge strides in hunting safety. Mandated classes for hunters play an important role in that effort. So, too, does the blaze orange requirement.

But the linchpin is our strict target identification law, which holds hunters responsible for every shot they fire.

All of us have to know what we’re shooting at. All of us have to know what lies beyond that target.

And all of us — not just those of us whose victims don’t forgive us — should be held accountable if we fail to uphold those responsibilities.

Maine’s target identification law makes us all safer.

Gutting that law on a case-by-case basis would show that we don’t take safety nearly as seriously as we claim to.

In fact, doing so would essentially add another “oops” defense that could haunt us for years to come.

None of us can afford that.

John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. He spent 28 years working for the BDN, including 19 years as the paper's outdoors columnist or outdoors editor. While...