‘Statewide rifle’ has opposition

Milwaukee — A proposal to legalize the use of rifles for hunting deer statewide will be voted on at the spring fish and wildlife hearings on Monday, April 8, but with opposition now building ahead of that vote.

The result of an identical Conservation Congress advisory question in 2011 suggests this proposal could pass. Now, though, some local government officials from areas that are shotgun-only oppose the change.

Currently, all or parts of 20 counties have restrictions on the use of rifles during any gun deer season. One is Milwaukee County, where no firearms may be used for hunting. Metro Unit 76M, which encompasses Madison, and 59M, which encompasses La Crosse, are shotgun-only islands surrounded by areas where rifles are permitted.

In 2006, several other counties in southern Wisconsin did not allow rifles to be used for deer hunting. In 2007, and again in 2008, the DNR expanded the use of rifles in CWD management zones. Last year, Waupaca County was added to the list of places where rifles could be used.

In 2011, the Conservation Congress included the statewide rifle use question in the advisory portion of the spring hearings. It passed statewide 2,742-1,973, with nine counties opposing it. Only four counties that would be affected by the change, Fond du Lac, Winnebago, Outagamie, and La Crosse, voted no on the advisory question in 2011.

A 2003 DNR survey showed that about 76 percent of Wisconsin hunters used rifles and 24 percent used shotguns as their primary deer-hunting firearm.

Data from the 1998 through 2008 deer seasons showed 42 percent of shooting incidents involved shotguns. A majority of shooting incidents, like self-inflicted wounds, would have occurred regardless of the type of firearm involved.

The DNR does not have a management reason to restrict rifle use, and the accident data indicate rifles are not inherently more dangerous to use than shotguns. The DNR is offering the proposed rule change for the 2013 spring hearings, and said the rule would simplify deer-hunting regulations.

DNR Conservation Warden Todd Schaller, Recreation Safety and Education Section chief, said an issue that has come up with past expansions of rifle use for deer hunting has been the extended range of rifles and the potential safety problems with that range.

“The key is safety, regardless of what type of weapon or firearm a person is using for hunting,” he said. “Knowing and following the four rules of firearms safety is the key for hunters. If they do that, regardless of the range of the weapon they are using, there is no safety concern.”

Schaller said studies in other states have shown the ballistic nature of shotgun slugs can make them more dangerous than rifles. Slugs have a greater tendency to ricochet, and that can be a safety concern.

Dave Valentine is chairman of the town of Cedarburg in Ozaukee County. He’s a certified safety professional and has 39 years experience as a safety consultant with major insurance carriers. Valentine is not in favor of using rifles for deer hunting in his township.

“I don’t think it is a good idea,” he said. “The problem with the rifle is it just carries too far. There are too many open areas, too many houses, too much development. With the range of rifles, I think we are just asking for trouble. I think we would be endangering our citizens and our property due to the range of rifles.”

Richard Bertram, the town of Barton chairman in Washington County, is a deer hunter. He doesn’t think rifles are needed for deer hunting in his township.

“I don’t know that I would allow it in some of the small areas where you are hunting on farms,” he said. “A few people I know who have property around here, I think a shotgun is more than sufficient. I don’t believe, having hunted myself with both (rifles and shotguns), that it is any kind of a detriment to just use a shotgun.”

His biggest concern is with small woodlots in the town where there is little to stop a rifle bullet from traveling a long distance and possibly hitting a house.

Counties, villages, cities, and townships have the ability to create their own restrictions on rifle use, even if the state allows the use. The DNR would not be responsible for enforcing local restrictions.

“The regulation or enforcement of that would have to come at that local level,” Schaller said. “Wardens would not have the authority to enforce those ordinance-type regulations.”

The town of Cedarburg does not have the ability to enforce restrictions.

“Unfortunately, all we have is a constable,” Valentine said. “We don’t have a sheriff or a police department or anything. We don’t have an enforcement mechanism, other than calling the county sheriff.”

Bertram said he thinks all town officials would consider enacting local restrictions, but he also sees a problem with enforcement.

“I just think it is very hard for a town to enforce something like that,” he said. “We don’t have the resources that the DNR has. Most towns don’t have their own police force. Most towns depend on the county.”

Bertram said he can’t imagine the town of Barton enacting a rifle restriction when a neighboring town might allow it. He believes it has to be a regional thing.

Richard Mueller, chairman of the town of Fredonia in Ozaukee County, is miffed that the DNR cannot enforce local restrictions on firearms for hunting.

“That’s kind of a joke,” he said. “If they are out there anyway (checking hunters) they should enforce what our ordinance says.”

Scott Sager has been a hunter safety instructor in Washington County for 28 years. His programs have received national recognition for excellence. Sager has no problem with the use of rifles for deer hunting in relatively urban areas.

“I’m all for it,” he said. “The biggest thing is still the responsibility of the hunter knowing their target and what is beyond. Whether they use a rifle, a pistol, a muzzleloader, or a shotgun, all those rules still apply.”

Sager acknowledges that rifle bullets can travel a long way, but he said the new sabot shotgun slugs have a range that comes close to many rifle calibers. He thinks the extended range of shotgun slugs might contribute to the disproportionate number of shooting incidents with shotguns.

“A lot of the people that shoot slugs, my perception would be, they say slugs don’t go that far,” Sager said. “They take shots they shouldn’t be taking. Having an understanding of how far your bullet can carry and knowing the distances and where that bullet is ultimately going to stop is the responsibility of the hunter.”

A large portion of Waukesha County is in a CWD zone where rifles are allowed. The rest of the county is shotgun-only. Dale Shaver, Waukesha County director of parks and land use, said he is not aware of any safety problems in the area of Waukesha County where rifles are allowed.

On county land open to hunting, the hunter must assume responsibility for knowing if there are firearms restrictions.

“We tell the hunter you are welcome to hunt on these county lands as long as you follow the state hunting regulations and the local firearms restrictions,” Shaver said.

At this time, Waukesha County does not intend to pursue rifle restrictions if the DNR proposal passes.

“We will look to municipalities to make those decisions,” Shaver said.

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