According to The Salt Lake Tribune, a group of biologists has completed an analysis of Alaska bear encounters, and they conclude that the presence of a gun made no statistical difference in the outcomes of the encounters.
The study, led by longtime bear biologist and Brigham Young University professor Tom Smith, compiled data from 269 close-quarters bear encounters involving a firearm that occurred in Alaska between the years 1883 and 2009.
Smith says that the data show that a gun, while sometimes life-saving, is not a cure-all to stop a bear from attacking.
An Alaska game official expressed skepticism about the validity of Smith's data-set, but he did echo the conclusion that a gun -- or pepper-spray for that matter -- alone should not be thought of as a substitute for more comprehensive bear safety measures.
"Whatever technique you use is going to be only as good as you are. The best protection is to be prepared mentally, be prepared to deal with a situation," said Larry Van Daele, a biologist and acting regional supervisor with Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "Bears are very good at perceiving how people react, and how you react has a lot to do with how an encounter turns out."
Smith's study may not be news in the sense that being bear-safe is a full-time job, not just a matter of packing a rootin'-tootin' hogleg or a spray can, but it does seem to shed a bit of light on one persistent debate among backcountry travelers in Alaska: Handgun or long gun?
Smith says the data indicate a distinct difference between outcomes depending on what kind of firearm was present. Handguns held an edge in successful outcomes against long guns, 84 percent to 74 percent.
Smith attributes the difference to the maneuverability of handguns, an important factor when close quarters and poor visibility render a shoulder-fired weapon mostly useless.