New Wisconsin law allows toddlers to operate firearms

Gov. Scott Walker quietly signed the bill into law over the weekend.

In this Feb. 17, 2011, file photo Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker talks to the media at the State Capitol in Madison, Wis. CREDIT: AP Photo/Andy Manis, File
In this Feb. 17, 2011, file photo Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker talks to the media at the State Capitol in Madison, Wis. CREDIT: AP Photo/Andy Manis, File

Wisconsin’s nine-day gun deer hunting season starts this weekend, and this year, for the first time, children of any age will be able to hunt with a firearm while accompanied by an adult. Last Saturday, Gov. Scott Walker quietly signed into law a bill that lifted age and firearm restrictions on adults hunting with small children.

In Wisconsin, hunters need to be at least 14 years old and pass a hunter’s safety class to hunt alone, but the state’s mentoring program allowed children 10 and up to hunt with an adult. The new law eliminates this age restriction, as well as lifts a ban on hunters carrying multiple firearms when they’re hunting with children.

Licences for the children now able to hunt under the new law went on sale Monday, making Wisconsin the 35th state to have no minimum hunting age.

The bill was introduced in the state legislature in July, but its signing comes just weeks after two mass shootings and amid a national conversation about gun control.

Last month, a gunman killed 58 people at a country music festival in Las Vegas, Nevada, and earlier this month, a gunman killed 26 people at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. In the wake of the shootings, legislators in Washington have floated bump stock and assault weapons bans, as well as a bill to close a loophole in the background check system.

In the midst of those debates, proponents of the Wisconsin bill have argued that the government has no role in determining at what age a child should be able to handle a gun. Rather, they’ve said, that decision should be left up to parents.

“What this [bill] means is that parents would now decide if, and when their child is ready to participate in a mentored hunter program and not the government,” Republican State Rep. Rob Stafsholt, the bill’s sponsor, wrote earlier this year.

Another Republican, State Rep. Joel Kleefish, echoed his colleague Monday, telling USA Today, “It’s not the government’s job to tell parents” when their kids are ready to hunt.

Critics of the legislation say that of course the government has a role in regulating when children can hunt, particularly considering that it regulates when children can participate in other activities.

In Wisconsin, boat and driving licences are age restricted. Children can’t drive a boat until the age of 12 and must be under adult supervision; they have to be 15-and-a-half to obtain a driver’s permit in the state.

“To me, it would be hard to argue that somehow using a gun is less dangerous potentially than a boat or a car, so it just seems inconsistent,” David Chipman, a senior policy adviser at Americans for Responsible Solutions, said in an interview with ThinkProgress Tuesday.

The fact that the state is interested in restricting boat and driving licenses but not gun licences, Chipman said, “shows the influence of a very powerful lobby.” And he’s right: The National Rifle Association supported the bill, encouraging people to support the bill without any amendments in August

Kevyn Quamme, a firearms coach and trainer in Wisconsin, told ThinkProgress on Tuesday that he’s concerned about the fact that the new law lifts restrictions on how many firearms that mentors can bring when hunting with children. 

“The mentor should be focused,” he said, “not distracted by having a firearm to carry” or, he added, by hunting themselves.

He’s worried that proponents of the legislation pushed it for the wrong reasons, including being able to shoot additional deer by bringing along an additional (child) hunter.

Quamme — who opposed the bill throughout the legislative process, writing in August that he believed hunting could be “an almost traumatic experience” for children under the age of seven or eight — said the new law also raises practical concerns for him. As a father himself, he said he’s had many experiences when his kids were worn out and he ended up carrying one of them while they were away from home.

If you’re a half a mile or more away from the car and hunting, and your child gets too tired to walk, he wondered, what do you do?

“How do you carry a kid and multiple firearms safely?” Quamme asked. “You can’t.”

What comforts him, however, is that he isn’t sure many people will even take advantage of the new law, with the gun deer hunting season coming so quickly and many people likely recognizing the difficulty of bringing along a small child on a hunting trip.

George Meyer, the executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, told the Associated Press he had similar doubts about how many young children will get mentoring licences this year.

“It’s new, right before the season,” Meyer said. “People already have their hunting plans scheduled. But there will be some people, those who followed the bill. You surely will see some.”

Now that the bill has become law, Chipman hopes the NRA and other proponents of the legislation will gather data about the effects and potential dangers of the legislation.

We need to “speak honestly about the fact that a firearm is designed to kill things and it can result in accidents,” Chipman said Tuesday. “To somehow say that the government doesn’t have an interest in regulating this is just not true.”