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Cheney’s Got a Gun: Part 2

Aspects of Vice President Dick Cheney’s quail hunt make ethical hunters and hunter safety instructors cringe. From reports, we know that this hunting party consisted of three hunters and, thus, three guns. This is highly unusual and generally seen as unsafe. Nearly every hunting preserve I know of here in the Southeast restricts upland bird hunt parties to two guns, for obvious reasons: one hunter takes the left side, one the right side. There is generally a dog and a guide (the dog handler), who is very careful to stay behind the guns after the dogs go on point … Reports say the hunters were hunting by car. Too old and feeble to walk? Too lazy? An upland bird hunt by car is an offensive idea to any honest, ethical hunter. This sounds like irresponsible cruising for easy shooting, rather than the time-honored tradition of slowly walking the fields and brush, watching the dogs work, and — if you’re lucky — finding a covey or two of quail … The idea of hunting from a car is bad. It’s dangerous because hunters would be getting in and out, guns pointing every which way, losing track of the wind, the weather, the angle of the sun, the energy level of the dogs. Hunting from a car is, for able-bodied hunters at least, completely antithetical to honest, ethical hunting. One of the cardinal rules of any bird hunt: Don’t shoot low birds. Why? It is more difficult to see birds against the ground than against the sky. It is possible that something besides a bird might be on the ground, and thus in the way; generally this would be the dog … As a hunter and conservationist, I feel misrepresented by Cheney and his ilk. They portray hunting as a sport for the rich, carried out on vast private lands, where pulling the trigger takes priority over everything else. (

Quail hunting for years has been called the sport of aristocracy … Quail hunting is a gentleman’s game and is often a spectator and participator sport at the same time … most quail hunts involve a pair of dogs and a pair of hunters in the field at the same time. Each dog is competing to see which one can locate a covey of quail first. Once one of the dogs zeros in on his quarry, he will freeze on “point.” The other dog is trained to “honor” the pointing dog by actually freezing and pointing that dog. This is when the excitement builds in anticipation of an explosion of whirring wings known as the covey flush. An awareness of all of the gunners responsibilities and location of each prior to the flush is an absolute necessity. Strict gun discipline is required. While wind conditions and proximity of escape cover for the flushing birds may alter what I am about to say, as a rule of thumb the hunters should approach their dogs from behind the dogs. The gun muzzles should be oriented skyward and the shotgun needs to remain on safety until mounted to one’s shoulder. The two hunters should approach the dogs, one on either side, and in a straight line with one another. This straight line is very important for the safety of each hunter. Prior to moving on up and allowing the birds to flush, each hunter should visibly and mentally locate: each other, both dogs, the hunting rig, and the hunting guide if on a guided hunt. Each hunter should know in advance where he can and cannot swing the muzzle of his gun to follow an escaping quail. Each hunter’s range of gun swing should be from the mid-point between him and his partner and out to his side. He should never cross the mid-point to shoot at a quail flying on his partner’s side. Not only is this poor shotgunning etiquette, it is dangerous. Additionally, a quail hunter should never take a shot at a low flying quail that would cause him to lower the muzzle of his shotgun below a horizontal plane with the ground. Taking a shot at a low-flying quail has ended the life of many fine pointing dogs since the inception of this great sport. If each hunter places safety and sportsmanship at a much higher priority than actually pulling the trigger, quail hunting is truly a unique hunting experience.

(The first quote above is from an op/ed piece that was published by the Charlotte Observer in response to the Cheney shooting incident. The second is from the website of the “Riverview Plantation,” a private hunting reserve in Georgia that “Specializ[es] in Quail Hunting for the Corporate Account.” In other words, it is a place not unlike the Armstrong Ranch in south Texas. While the above quote reads very much like a commentary on the Cheney shooting, and a condemnation of Cheney’s stated actions, it actually is not. In an attempt to prompt some direct commentary on the incident, I sent an e-mail inquiry to the owners of the plantation. I’m still waiting for a response. I forgot to ask them, by the way, if they would consider hunting with Dick Cheney to be a good “spectator sport.”)

One of the most amazing things about this case is that even if we accept without question the tale told by Cheney and Armstrong – if we accept that this ‘accident’ occurred exactly as we have been told it happened it is perfectly obvious that the consensus media opinion that there was no misconduct or negligence is simply untrue. By his own account, Cheney was hunting by vehicle, a decidedly unsafe, and unethical, practice. By his own account, he was out in a three-man hunting party. By his own account, he made no effort to ascertain the whereabouts of anyone else in his party before firing away. By his own account, he was firing at a bird that would have had to have been flying ridiculously low. By his own account, he swung his gun far beyond “the mid-point” to take his shot. By his own account, he had been drinking that day (undoubtedly far more than he has admitted to). By his own account, he was hunting in flat terrain with a party that included a hostess, two other hunters, several guides and outriders (scouts on horseback), a medical team, and a Secret Service team — and yet he swung his gun around blindly a full 180º to take a shot at an alleged bird that was supposedly flying just a few feet off the ground.

By his own account, Cheney actions were, without question, criminally reckless. And yet, remarkably enough, the media machine has beat a hasty retreat from this story, implying that there is really nothing left to talk about.

Every gun-enthusiast organization in the country, including the venerable National Rifle Association, knows full well not only that Cheney’s story cannot possibly be true, but that even if it were true, it would expose Cheney as a recklessly irresponsible gunman who certainly should be held accountable for his actions. All of these groups, nevertheless, have chosen to put their partisan, knee-jerk politics ahead of any sort of search for the truth of what happened that day. Cheney and company have insulted the intelligence of every responsible hunter and sport shooter in the country, and yet the groups representing these gun owners have conspicuously chosen to remain silent.

As previously discussed, there are unanswered questions about both the angle of the shot and the distance between the shooter and victim. In addition, there is yet another problem with the official story — a problem that no one in the media, to my knowledge, has yet commented upon. This problem was brought to my attention by Mr. Lester Gregg, Jr., a conscientious hunter from east Texas with more than 35 years experience. Commenting on Cheney’s claim that he was tracking a bird in flight as he swung his weapon around, Gregg had this to say:

When taking a wing shot, you are swinging the barrel and leading the bird. This causes the shot to form a “string,” roughly a long narrow oval in the air. The almost circular shot pattern reported on Whittington is typical of a stationary shot, point and shoot! This is a very important fact completely overlooked or misrepresented in the media. On CNN I heard a person from Field & Stream magazine glossing over the details and never remarking on this. There is no way he could not know this simple fact known by hunters and shooters.

So now we have at least three major problems with the official story: the angle of the shot is entirely inconsistent with accepted quail hunting practices; the tightness of the pattern and the depth of penetration are incompatible with the stated shooting distance; and the outline of the shot pattern is not consistent with Cheney’s claimed ‘wing shot.’ And yet another problem with the official story was raised by the Charlotte Observer, which posed the following question: “Why was the hunter, Harry Whittington, looking for a downed bird? Were there no dogs? A quail hunt without a dog? Absurd. If there were dogs, why not have them go after the dead bird.” A perfectly reasonable question, but one which Brit Hume didn’t bother to ask. (Scott Denham “Cheney Ignored Safe Hunting Procedures,” Charlotte Observer, February 14, 2006)

By Cheney’s own account, there were indeed dogs along on the hunt: “There were three of us who had gotten out of the vehicle and walked up on a covey of quail that had been pointed by the dogs. Covey is flushed, we’ve shot, and each of us got a bird. Harry couldn’t find his, it had gone down in some deep cover, and so he went off to look for it. The other hunter and I then turned and walked about a hundred yards in another direction … away from him – where another covey had been spotted by an outrider.” (

According to published accounts, in addition to the guide and the outriders, the hunting party also brought along hired help to dress and pack their downed birds. In other words, these gentlemen hunters’ participation in the hunt involved little more than pulling the trigger. Though they were too lazy to actually walk the terrain in search of prey, or to perform such menial tasks as dressing their own kills, we are supposed to believe that gentleman hunter Harry Whittington, at nearly 79 years of age, ventured off alone into some rough terrain in search of his downed bird, while the dogs and various hired hands busied themselves, I presume, with dodging wild shots taken by Dick Cheney.

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Whittington really did venture off to fetch his own kill. That would, alas, raise yet another problem with the official story. According to the Cheney/Rove/Armstrong version of events, Cheney was unaware of Whittington’s position because Harry had been approaching Dick (shouldn’t there be a Tom in this story?) from behind, unannounced. Leaving aside the fact that it would have clearly been Cheney’s responsibility to know Whittington’s position prior to taking his shot, since even a novice hunter knows that you never, ever pull the trigger without knowing exactly what is in your line of fire, there is an obvious problem with this scenario. This was not, you see, your run-of-the-mill hunting party; this was a hunting party that included Dick Cheney, Vice President of the United States and possibly the most well-guarded man on the planet.

Though only the World Socialist Web Site seems to have noticed, it is simply inconceivable that someone with a loaded shotgun could walk up behind the Vice President without Cheney and his security personnel being aware of it. And if Whittington was close enough to catch a full load of birdshot in his chest and face, then he was obviously close enough to deliver one as well, and normally Cheney’s army of security personnel keep tabs on such things.

The Charlotte Observer, alone among the media, took note of yet another troubling aspect of the official story: “Cheney shot Whittington at 5:15 p.m. on Saturday [5:30 p.m., according to official reports] — way too late to be hunting quail. Good hunters hunt early in the day, when the light is good, the birds are active, and the dogs are fresh. One should generally not be out for quail this late in the day.” (Scott Denham “Cheney Ignored Safe Hunting Procedures,” Charlotte Observer, February 14, 2006)

Yet another curious fact: this incident occurred very late in the hunting season, and as any hunter knows, locating and flushing coveys of birds becomes progressively more difficult as the season wears on, as the population of birds is reduced and the remaining quail become savvy to the ways of the hunters pursuing them. Flushing two coveys in rapid succession so late in the season, and so late in the afternoon, would be extremely unlikely, and yet that is exactly what the official story claims to be the case.

The preceding paragraph, it should be noted, would not apply if Cheney’s party was shooting at pen-raised quail on a controlled-release ‘hunt,’ as he has done in the past. But Cheney claimed otherwise during his chat with Hume, stressing that they had been hunting “wild quail.” Of course, that could be just another of Dick Cheney’s numerous lies, one he constructed so as to avoid the same sort of mild criticism he has received in the past for his participation in what amount to turkey shoots.

Here’s yet another curious fact: according to all reports, Whittington was purportedly wearing hunting gear at the time of the shooting. But it’s difficult to believe that he actually was. According to Cheney, Whittington “was wearing hunting glasses, and that protected his eyes.” But during Whittington’s brief media appearance, it certainly appeared as though his right eye had sustained damage from the shot. Reports also hold that Whittington was wearing a blaze orange hunting vest over three layers of street clothes. But it is difficult to believe that #7½ birdshot fired from a 28-gauge gun could penetrate four layers of clothing and still plow through a considerable amount of skin, muscle and various other bodily tissues, even from a much shorter distance than 30 yards.

It should be noted here that, as shotguns go, a 28-gauge gun is not a particularly powerful weapon. The most popular shotgun sizes, in descending order of magnitude, are 10-gauge, 12-gauge, 16-gauge, 20-gauge, 28-gauge, and 410-gauge. None of these guns – and particularly the smaller caliber weapons, which are typically loaded with lightweight birdshot – are designed for maximum penetration. The intent is not to shred the bird, but to bring it down with a minimal amount of damage to the meat. It is therefore extremely unlikely that a weapon designed to barely penetrate the flesh of a bird could propel birdshot through four layers of clothing and then through the skin, muscle and bone of the human chest wall. It is even more unlikely that a piece of shot could ‘migrate’ through the chest wall and into the heart muscle. A reasonable conclusion to draw then is that Whittington was probably not attired as reports would have us believe.

So what do we have here? We have Harry Whittington supposedly being shot while returning from performing a duty that is entirely incompatible with this aristocratic group’s hunting philosophy, we have a shot pattern that is wholly incompatible with both the alleged shooting distance and the type of shot that was supposedly being taken (a wing shot), we have a shooting angle that appears to contradict the notion that Cheney was shooting at a bird, we have a hunting party having phenomenal luck despite being out late in the day and late in the season, and we have a shooting victim who was likely attired in some manner other than what has been reported.

Most of the questions surrounding the shooting would have been answered had a routine investigation taken place. We would know, for example, the exact distance between shooter and victim. Had the gun and ammunition been taken into custody, ballistics tests could have been performed that could pinpoint that distance through comparisons of test patterns with the actual shot pattern imprinted on Whittington’s torso. And we know that taking such actions is standard procedure — and we know that because the Hunting Accident Report Form advises officers quite explicitly on how to proceed with a hunting incident investigation:

If possible, firearms, archery tackle, ammunition/powder or other equipment involved in a hunting accident/incident should be taken into the custody of the investigating officer for testing and/or evaluation.

Needless to say, that did not happen, so we do not know the precise distance from which the shot was fired. We know that “Whittington was hit with as many as 200 birdshot pellets.” (Nedra Pickler “Experts: Cheney Violated Cardinal Rule of Hunting,” Charlotte Observer, February 14, 2006) Doctors who tended to Whittington steadfastly avoided discussing the number of pellet wounds, though they did ultimately offer a ludicrously vague estimate of “between 5 and 200,” leading many to conclude that the actual number was far closer to 200 than to 5.

We also know that a 28-gauge shell loaded with the size birdshot that Cheney was using “would normally contain about 260 pellets.” (Ian Urbina “Cheney Account Questioned,” International Herald Tribune, February 16, 2006) And we know, from the diagram included in the Accident Report, that roughly 200 of those birdshot pellets were tightly clustered within a fairly small, roughly circular area — with one portion of the circle missing, from which we can deduce that the 25% or so of the pellets that missed their target likely passed over Whittington’s right shoulder (though the illustration in the accident report erroneously shows the injuries on his left side).

We also know, from this photo and others, that Cheney appears to favor a shotgun with a fairly short barrel — and likely with an open choke as well (the more open the choke, the larger the diameter at the end of the barrel). And we know that the shorter the barrel, and the more open the choke, the more quickly the shot will scatter after exiting the barrel.

From all this we reach the inescapable conclusion that the shot that hit Harry Whittington was fired from considerably less than 30 yards. We cannot pinpoint the exact distance, but we know that it wasn’t even close to the official claim. Alex Jones (who is not one of my preferred sources of information) has conducted a test that he claims proves the shot was fired from 15-18 feet away. Such a claim, however, overstates the conclusions that can be drawn from his test. Ideally, the test should utilize the very same gun and ammunition that Cheney was using — or at least the exact same make and model of weapon, outfitted with a barrel of the same length and choke, and loaded with ammunition from the same manufacturer and with the same load and shot characteristics. Also, photographic or other evidence of the true extent of Whittington’s wounds is required so that the shot pattern that the test is trying to match can first be ascertained.

Despite the problems with the test (and in fairness to Jones, there is obviously no way that he could have satisfied the second condition, since no such evidence has been, or ever will be, released), it does illustrate, rather convincingly, that it is inconceivable that any 28-gauge shotgun firing  #7½ birdshot from anywhere near 30 yards away could have caused Harry Whittington’s wounds. Both the concentration of pellets, and the depth of penetration, testify to the fact that the shot was fired from a much shorter distance.

Another hard and fast conclusion we can draw from the available evidence is that, contrary to media reports and White House spin, hunting ‘accidents’ of this nature are virtually unheard of. According to the graphic above (provided by Time Magazine), there were only 850 hunting accidents throughout the country in 2002, and only 26 of those – a mere 3% – involved quail hunters. So we know that quail hunting accidents, in general, are quite rare. And this was no run-of-the-mill quail hunting accident. The Charlotte Observer has claimed that “hunting accidents like Cheney’s happened 34 times last year” in the state of Wisconsin. (Robert Imrie “Hunting Accidents Like Cheney’s Happened 34 Times Last Year,” Charlotte Observer, February13, 2006) The title of the Observer article, however, is very misleading, for the truth is that it is extremely unlikely that there were any hunting accidents “like Cheney’s” last year in Wisconsin — or in any of the other 49 states.

Of the three representative examples of “accidents like Cheney’s” cited by the Observer, none bears the slightest resemblance to Cheney’s incident. James Manzke, for example, was hit in the hand with “one pellet that traveled 3 inches into the meaty part of his hand,” while Gregory Horton “was wounded in the hand, arm, nose and head from eight 12-gauge shotgun pellets while pheasant hunting,” and Joe Crosby “struck his father in the head, neck, chest and shoulder” with 15 pellets. These are the types of accidents that, while statistically not nearly as common as the White House spin team would have us believe, could reasonably be expected to occur from time to time. But there is, alas, an enormous difference between getting sprayed with a few pieces of stray shot, and getting blasted in the face and chest from short range with nearly a full load of shot. That type of ‘accident,’ we can safely conclude, is an exceptionally rare event, enough so that should such an ‘accident’ occur, it would, under virtually any other conceivable circumstances, certainly be looked upon by law enforcement officials as a probable crime.

In this case, however, authorities didn’t even bother to pretend that they had any intention of investigating the incident, as a quick read through the two-page Texas Parks and Wildlife Report readily reveals. Instructions to investigating officers included right on the form were willfully ignored. The weapon and ammunition, as previously noted, were not seized for examination and testing. A recommendation that “a copy of local law enforcement/hospital report” be attached to the form was likewise ignored. Other attachments are curiously absent as well, including a “Shooter’s Statement,” “a “Victim’s Statement,” and “Witness’ Statements.” Instead, all we find is a very brief summary of the incident that is simply a rote repetition of the official cover story. That story was supplied by the one and only witness listed on the form – Katharine Armstrong of Armstrong, Texas.

The shooter, Richard B. Cheney, was obviously a witness to the event as well, but it appears quite likely that he was not actually interviewed. In the brief section of the report reserved for information about the shooter, “Years hunting experience” is left blank and “Hunter Education Certified?” is marked “Unknown,” although such mundane information could have been quickly and easily gathered had the shooter actually been even briefly questioned.

The Kenedy County Sheriff’s Department also made no effort to actually investigate the shooting. And the department seemed to have a little trouble keeping its story straight initially, offering varying versions of the initial law enforcement response to the shooting. Sheriff Ramon Salinas III first told the New York Times that his deputy had questioned Cheney Saturday night, not long after the shooting. But other reports held that a deputy responding to reports of the shooting had in fact been turned away at the gates of the property (I wasn’t even aware that I apparently have the option of turning away investigating officers should a shooting ever occur on my property. Is the LAPD aware of this?)

Secret Service agents later claimed that they had promptly notified the sheriff of the shooting, and had, at that time, arranged an interview with Cheney for Sunday morning. Salinas then quickly changed his story and claimed that he had made the decision not to send a deputy on Saturday night. But on February 14, the Washington Post reported the following: “Secret Service spokesman Eric Zahren said at least one deputy was turned away shortly after the shooting because security personnel at the ranch were not aware of the agreement between the sheriff and the Secret Service.” That statement, it should be noted, was more than a little bizarre, given that the turning away of law enforcement personnel only makes sense if the “security personnel” were aware of the supposed agreement and had relayed that information to the investigating officer.

The next day, Zahren added a few more modifications to the story, telling the New York Times that “some local police officers had heard about the shooting on a scanner when an ambulance was sent to pick up Mr. Whittington. They showed up at the ranch unsolicited. Private guards, not Secret Service agents, Mr. Zahren said, turned the police away because they did not know anything had occurred.” So now it was private security guards turning away police officers, rather than Secret Service agents turning away sheriff’s deputies, with the added caveat that the officers learned of the shooting independently when an ambulance was dispatched. That’s a nice story, I suppose, except for the fact that Cheney has claimed that the hunting party didn’t need to call an ambulance, since they already “had an ambulance at the ranch, because one follows me around wherever I go.” And then, of course, there is the decidedly dubious claim that real cops would defer to the authority of rent-a-cops.

Sheriff Salinas’ final report on the incident, issued on February 15, offered yet another version of events:

On February 11, 2006 at approximately 5:30 p.m., I, Ramon Salinas, III, and Sheriff of Kenedy County received a telephone call at my home from Captain Charles Kirk in reference to a possible hunting accident that had occurred at the Armstrong Ranch. Captain Kirk stated that he was on his way to the Armstrong gate to get more information.

About 8 to 10 minutes later, I received another call from a United States Secret Service Agent; I believe his name was Martinez. He said the purpose of the call was to officially notify the Kenedy County Sheriff’s Office of a hunting accident that had just occurred on the Armstrong Ranch and that it involved Vice-President Cheney.

After I hung up, Captain Kirk called me back and said that he’d made contact with a Border Patrol agent at the Armstrong gate and that the Agent told him that he didn’t know anything about the accident. I then told Captain Kirk that it was fine and that I would contact someone on the Ranch.

After speaking with Captain Kirk I contacted Constable Ramiro Medellin Jr., former Sheriff of Kenedy County and asked him if he had any information about the accident. Constable Medellin stated that he would call me right back.

Constable Medellin returned my call and said, “This in fact is an accident.” He stated that he had spoken with some of the people in the hunting party who were eyewitnesses and that they all said it was definitely a hunting accident. I also spoke with another eyewitness and he said the same thing, that it was an accident.

After hearing the same information from eyewitnesses and Constable Medellin, it was at this time that I decided to send my Chief Deputy first thing Sunday morning to interview the Vice-President and other witnesses.

A few minutes later, I received another call from the Secret Service asking if I was going to send someone to the Ranch. I told him that someone would be there first thing in the morning. The Secret Service said they would be at the gate waiting.

At approximately 6:15 p.m. I contacted Chief Deputy San Miguel and advised him of the incident and to be at the gate at approximately 8:00 a.m.

There is certainly no shortage of irregularities in the sheriff’s brief, poorly written report. First of all, we now find that Salinas was first informed of the shooting – and I couldn’t make this stuff up if I wanted to, folks – by Captain Kirk. And the phone call from Kirk to Salinas came in at 5:30 p.m., which just happens to be the exact time that Whittington was shot, according to all official accounts. So what happened was that Whittington was shot, his wounds were tended to at the scene, an ambulance was summoned (even though there was already one there), which Captain Kirk picked up on via a scanner, after which he headed out towards the ranch while phoning Salinas. And all of that happened, of course, instantaneously, so that Salinas actually knew about the shooting the very second that the shot was fired.

By 5:40 p.m., just ten minutes after the shot was fired, a Secret Service agent had already contacted Salinas to again inform him of the shooting, but Salinas didn’t bother to note the agent’s name, because when someone calls to report a shooting involving the Vice-President of the United States, it’s not really important to make a note of who that person is.

Immediately after that call, Captain Kirk called back to say that he had arrived at the Armstrong gate, where he encountered not a Secret Service agent, and not a private security officer, but rather a Border Patrol agent, who was, I’m guessing, patrolling the borders of the Armstrong Ranch. That agent did not, however, turn Captain Kirk away, as previously reported. Instead, Kirk was called off by Sheriff Salinas, who then called Constable Medellin to see if he just happened to have any information on a shooting that had taken place just minutes before.

Constable Medellin then promptly called back to confidently inform Salinas that “This in fact is an accident,” even though nobody that I’ve ever known actually talks like that, and even though Constable Medellin couldn’t possibly have known the details of the shooting less than half an hour after it had taken place. Nevertheless, he boldly claimed to have spoken to multiple eyewitnesses, and Salinas added that he had also spoken to an eyewitness, though none of these alleged witnesses are named, undoubtedly because they don’t actually exist.

By 6:15 p.m., just 45 minutes after the shot was fired – and while the hunting party was still focused on tending to Whittington, according to Cheney’s account, and not yet concerned with notifying authorities or the media – both the Sheriff and the Constable had spoken to multiple witnesses and were satisfied that this was nothing more than a routine hunting accident. And they had, remarkably enough, talked to all those witnesses a full 45 minutes before the hunting party had even made it back to the house! That, I have to say, is some pretty impressive police work.

To be continued yet again …