CLINTON, N.J. — In a wooded area up a dirt road off an interstate highway, Jamie Cap peers down the sight of his new shotgun at a target about 40 yards away. He adjusts the angle by nudging a toggle switch, then fires.
An ear-shattering report echoes off the trees and nearby cars, and Cap is pushed back a few inches by the force of the blast.
He turns and nods his head – the only part of his body he can completely control.
It has been three decades since Cap last fired a gun – on Nov. 3, 1979 – and he remembers it as if it were yesterday, mainly because of what happened the next day: a high school football game, a head-on tackle and a neck injury that left him a quadriplegic and robbed him of hunting, one of his lifelong passions.
Or so he thought.
Cap, 46, recently won a 2 1/2-year legal battle to allow him to use, with the help of a partner, a 12-gauge shotgun fitted with a battery-powered machine that is operated by a breathing tube.
He described firing that first shot last week with a combination of wistfulness and enthusiasm another person might use to describe rekindling a decades-old romance.
"I don't know if there are words," he said. "I'm so happy. When you find you can do something again after 30 years, you can't put a price on that. Some people think it's nothing, but try being paralyzed for 30 years and then come talk to me."
Disabled hunters are far from uncommon in the U.S., but quadriplegic hunters still are relatively rare, experts say. That may be mostly due to a lack of awareness of technological advancements, since no states prohibit the disabled from owning firearms or from hunting, according to Vanessa Warner, director of disabled shooting services for the National Rifle Association.
Warner said she gets a few inquiries each week from people seeking information on licenses and equipment for quadriplegics. The NRA, she said, does not track the number of quadriplegic hunters.
Gun control advocates don't oppose efforts by people with disabilities to hold firearms licenses.
"There are no categories of prohibited purchasers based on physical disabilities, nor do we think there ought to be, outside of reasonable commonsense prohibitions," said Peter Hamm, spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the group named for former White House press secretary James Brady, who was paralyzed in a shooting in 1981. "If someone is not a convicted felon or hasn't been found to be a danger to themselves due to mental illness and they believe they can handle a firearm, we support their right to purchase one."
Cap might not have embarked on his bureaucratic odyssey had he not found Indiana-based Be Adaptive Equipment during a random Internet search. The company, which has made wheelchair mounts for shotguns since 2002, sells about 20 per year, according to owners Brian and Renee Kyler. Cap's model cost about $1,600; a new 12-gauge shotgun starts at about $250.
For a quadriplegic, firing a shotgun requires help from a companion. In Cap's case, a friend sets up the contraption, safety on, on Cap's wheelchair and Cap aims the shotgun by moving the toggle switch with his mouth. Once his partner releases the safety, Cap fires by sipping on the breathing tube.
New Jersey is one of a handful of states where prospective shotgun owners must apply for firearms purchaser's identification cards through their local police departments and undergo background checks and fingerprinting. Cap applied in Manville, in central New Jersey, in the spring of 2007.
The process usually takes a few months, according to Scott Bach, president of the Association of New Jersey Rifle and Pistol Clubs. Cap and his attorney claim Manville police dragged their feet, taking 20 months before denying the application and forcing the case to go to state court. They are considering reviving a lawsuit against the town and police Chief Mark Peltack.
"I believe he was denied because they felt, 'What, are you kidding me?' and just rejected him because of the fact he was in a wheelchair," said Cap's attorney, Ed Kopelson, a quadriplegic who specializes in disability cases.
Peltack didn't return a telephone message seeking comment, but attorney Frank Linnus, who represented the town, said the issue arose because police chiefs are only allowed to approve or deny applications without setting any conditions, which he said Peltack felt was necessary in this case.
A state Superior Court judge provided the conditions in a ruling last month that held Cap can have the ID, provided he stores any guns in a safe and has them transported, loaded, unloaded and cleaned by someone with a valid firearms ID card or who would be eligible for one.
Linnus said the court ruling was correct.
"The inclination was to grant the permit, and we tried to do that," Linnus said. "Ultimately, when the evidence came in, the chief found the issue was one of public safety. In the end, the court absolutely made the right decision."
Cap actually may be a safer hunter than most because he will always have a partner with him and because his shotgun has limited maneuverability, said Ed Mays, a former NRA disabled shooting services board member who runs disabled hunting programs in North Carolina.
"The companion has to put the safety off before the gun can be fired, so it's an extremely safe situation," Mays said. "And they have a very limited shooting lane – they can't deviate more than a few degrees. They're set up to shoot at a very specific spot, which makes them safer than 90 percent of hunters."
Cap said he planned to set up his chair on a piece of plywood in the woods or shoot from another stationary position such as a shed on a friend's property.
For Cap, who got his first hunting license when he was 11, the court victory was bittersweet. His father died before he could see his son's dream fulfilled.
"It bothers me when I lie awake at night, how long it took to get this," Cap said. "He's never going to see me here now, and that's all he did was talk about that. It meant a lot to me."