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Think a gun makes you safer around Alaska bears? Think again.

Craig Medred

Think you're safer with a gun around bears, as many Alaskans do? Maybe you'd better think again.

The news out of Montana on Friday was that 39-year-old Steve Stevenson of Winnemucca, Nev., was not killed by the grizzly bear that attacked him near the Montana-Idaho border on Sept. 16. He died,  authorities say, from a single gunshot to the chest.

An autopsy discovered the bullet, fired by a hunting companion who was trying to save Stevenson from the bear.

How well do your friends shoot? Better yet, how well do your friends shoot in stressful, combat-type situations?

Stevenson's hunting companion was a 20-year-old friend from Winnemucca. I don't know that I've met many 20-year-olds to whom I'd trust my life in a situation like this, and I say that -- let it be clear -- as someone who was attacked by a grizzly bear, clawed in the face and bitten in the leg, and who in the end shot the bear off his leg. I might be a whole lot uglier than I am now if not for a gun.

I might even be dead.

I am not embarrassed to say I like guns, either. Earlier this summer, I went to check on the remains of a full-grown moose that grizzly bears had killed up the valley from my Anchorage home. The bears were camped out in the middle of a trail and I packed a short-barreled shotgun with an extended magazine stuffed with slugs.

It is a weapon well designed for killing bears.

I have no doubts about the dangers bears can pose, or what it takes to kill one that's all pumped up on adrenaline. Neither do I have much doubt about my shooting skills. I grew up with firearms. I shot them regularly and still do, especially the shotgun, especially this time of year.

While tromping through the marsh the other day, I got to contemplating just what a great fall it has been. I've hit about 90 percent of all the waterfowl I've shot at, and most of the missed shots were difficult shots, sometimes very difficult shots at range.

Am I confident I could shoot a bear off a friend if I had to do so without hitting him or her? Yes. Am I confident all of my friends are capable of this? No. A couple, yes. Most of them, no.

Shooting is like any other skill. You've got to do a lot of it to get good at it, and it's best if you start young because if you start late you need to practice even more. Most of the people I know either didn't start young or didn't, and don't, practice enough.

They never quite got to that point where they act as if the gun was an extension of their body, and if you're going to be using a firearm in stressful situations -- any stressful situations -- this is the skill level you want and need. You ought to be as comfortable with your weapon as a four-star chef is with a frying pan.

If this is not the case, you might want to leave the gun at home. If this is not the case for your friends, you might want to tell them to leave the gun home, or bring some pepper spray in case they need to try to get a bear off you.

Pepper spray has a good track record for driving off bears. No one has, as yet, been killed using it. And it's unlikely you could kill someone else by using it.

Guns are wonderful tools, but only in the hands of people well-schooled in their use. In the hands of the unschooled, they are as dangerous as a chainsaw run by a fool. They can kill or maim the user or those around the user. The death of Stevenson ought to make everyone Alaskan stop and think seriously.

Guns aren't foolproof protection. Another Alaskan, 65-year-old Donald "Skip" Sanford of Anchorage, was mauled by a bear just this week. He had a gun. It didn't help.

There are a couple things worth noting about the attack: Though Sanford managed to shoot the bear, it still mauled him. He survived only because the bear later cut off the attack.

Most bears do. Scientist Tom Smith documented 515 bear attacks in Alaska involving brown/grizzly, black and polar bears between 1900 and 2004. Ninety-five percent of the people involved survived.

Smith, like other wildlife biologists, has noted the danger of using firearms in defense of others attacked by bears. He has also studied the effectiveness of bear spray. (The study is attached at the bottom of this story.)

Or you can indulge a lengthy analysis of bears, guns and spray written by Rick Sinnott, retired Anchorage-area wildlife biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, who entered the discussion after a group of students from the National Outdoor Leadership School were attacked by a bear in Alaska this summer.

Two of the students were seriously mauled. Many Alaskans thought afterward that the kids might have been better off with a gun. They might have been, or they might have been dead, like Steve Stevenson, instead of seriously injured.

Alaska Dispatch encourages a diversity of opinion and community perspectives. The opinions expressed herein are those of the contributor and are not necessarily endorsed or condoned by Alaska Dispatch. Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com