Being an older(ish) person, I admire those old time clever sayings or truisms. You know, like “A stitch in time saves nine.” Or “A penny saved is a penny earned.” After reading about the sentencing of Gregg Trude (Oct. 17 Missoulian) on the charge of negligent homicide, the truism that came to mind was, “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”

The negligence of Trude was that at the end of a hunting trip he, an experienced hunter and NRA instructor, had placed his rifle in the back seat of his vehicle without unloading it. When his (less experienced) hunting partner, Dr. Eugene Walton, was later removing his rifle, Trude’s rifle discharged, resulting in Walton’s death.

In most situations, even those not resulting in someone’s death, negligence is a rather “fuzzy” concept; potentially existing in varying degrees. In Montana, a charge of negligent homicide may be brought against a person if they consciously disregard a risk that “involves a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would observe in the actor’s situation.” A gross deviation is defined as “ a deviation that is considerably greater than a lack of ordinary care.” In real life (that is, real court), what it comes down to is what a jury of “one’s peers” believes is far from the norm of what a reasonable/intelligent person (themselves) would have done in the situation.

Trude’s defense lawyer must have sensed that, in the gun ownership and hunting culture of Montana, jurors would consider that tossing a loaded rifle into a car’s back seat was an act of irresponsible idiocy well beyond a bit of mental flatulence. So, when a defense motion to dismiss was denied, Trude changed his plea to guilty. The County (prosecuting) Attorney Leo Gallagher suggested that with rifle hunting season around the corner, the state should send a message that there were consequences for negligent homicide: “This (conviction and sentencing) is sending the message that killing an individual by gross mishandling of a firearm will not be tolerated.“

So, with Trude being the “goose” in a negligent homicide scenario, who are those I would considered “ganders”? They would be those who operate their personal motor vehicles — pieces of equipment just as deadly and much larger than a hunting rifle — with negligence levels similar to those displayed in the Trude case.

Over a year ago John Egbers was killed in Kansas while riding his bike exactly how and where he was supposed to: on the right portion of a straight, rural, two-lane road in broad daylight. He was using a flashing rear red light. The driver who hit Egbers from behind at over 50 mph admitted he was “looking at the fields” just before the crash.

Regardless, the Wichita County DA declined to charge Egbers’s killer with even distracted driving, much less negligent vehicular homicide. Did she believe failure to have one’s eyes on the road didn’t constitute a “gross deviation from the standard of conduct?” Or that a likely jury of drivers (who probably don’t bike) wouldn’t convict a fellow motorist who had an “oops” moment? It’s said that justice is blind. In John Egbers’ case, she was also pathetically brain dead.

Here in Montana, I would like to believe our police and courts will consider driver’s negligence to the same degree they do that of hunters; that it’s important to “send a message” to both. Whether behind a trigger or behind the wheel, lives are lost when we fail to use due care. We owe fellow hunters and travelers no less.

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Gene Schmitz is a retired small-business owner and science teacher. He is a lifelong bicyclist and traffic safety advocate with a history of significant involvement in bicycling advocacy in Missoula and other communities. 

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