In a move portrayed as preserving Wisconsin's hunting heritage, the state Senate takes up legislation Tuesday that would allow 10-year-olds to hunt under the supervision of an adult who couldn't carry a gun.
State Sen. Jim Holperin, D-Conover, the change's prime sponsor, said it's a proven way to safely recruit urban and suburban youths to the sport amid growing concern about losing too many of them to other activities.
Critics call the change -- which lowers the minimum hunting age by two years -- an accident waiting to happen because children so young are not mature enough to handle guns.
The Senate Transportation, Tourism, Forestry and Natural Resources Committee passed the bill 6-1. Holperin predicts passage in the Senate, too. It would still require approval from the Assembly and Gov. Jim Doyle.
"If there isn't enough interest in the next generation in these issues, our whole outdoor heritage slips slowly away."
"I think the sports community is properly fearful that if there isn't enough interest in the next generation in these issues, that our whole outdoor heritage slips slowly away," he said. "This is all about educating and immersing the next generation in the sport."
Hunting in Wisconsin is a $1.4 billion annual industry that supports 19,000 jobs, supporters say. It attracts about 650,000 deer hunters each fall for the gun season but those numbers are not growing and are expected to shrink as the baby boom generation ages.
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The bill before the Senate sets the minimum age for hunting at 10 with three restrictions -- an adult with a hunting license must accompany the child, the child must always be within "arm's reach" of the adult and there can be only one gun between the two of them.
Holperin contends the bill is "just replete with safety requirements," although hunters of any age going out with a mentor would not have to complete a safety class to buy an apprentice license.
Randy Stark, chief warden for the state Department of Natural Resources, said removing that barrier allows a "test drive" of hunting for participants. If the sport interests them, they later would have to pass the hunter's safety class.
Wisconsin law now allows 12-year-olds to hunt with supervision -- a parent or guardian must be within visual or voice distance -- provided they have passed hunter's safety training. Hunters must be at least 14 to hunt alone.
According to the Columbus, Ohio-based U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance, 30 states have no minimum hunting age and 28 states, including Minnesota, have created apprentice hunting licenses like what is proposed in Wisconsin, Vice President Rob Sexton said.
"Wisconsin is doing a more cautious approach than almost every other state," he said.
Since 2006, about 285,000 of the licenses have been sold, with only one shooting accident in which a youth suffered a self-inflicted foot wound in Pennsylvania, he said.
Brittany Zebrasky, a teenager from Hartland who has battled cancer, testified in support of Holperin's bill in April, saying she first went hunting with her father when she was 3.
She was 8, she said, the first time she hunted with a gun.
"But it wasn't in Wisconsin. It was in New Mexico," she said. "I was successful and harvested a bull elk."
Two years later, the girl said she shot a whitetail buck in Texas. "I have met so many special people who have mentored me in hunting," she testified.
Rep. Scott Gunderson, R-Union Grove, called the plan a parental rights bill that allows parents to decide when their child is ready to hunt.
The DNR says about 9,000 more licenses would be sold annually to young hunters participating in the mentoring program.
A residence hunting license now costs $20, but Holperin said the price for the apprentice license may be $5, to attract more youth hunters.
Stark said the apprentice program was safe because all the attention of the adult would be focused on the young hunter. In addition, license records indicate that the majority of mentors will have graduated from hunter's safety training -- giving them skills in safety.
Jim Slattery of Mazomanie, a retired surgeon who had a 14-year-old relative shot and killed by a 12-year-old hunter in 2005, opposes Holperin's bill, calling the term "mentor" nothing but a fancy word for someone with a hunting license who has no special training.
The change makes 10- and 11-year-olds take up the slack for stagnant hunting license sales, he said.
"Is that moral? Is that ethical? Is that serving the public interest?"
There's no requirement for those youths to take hunter's safety classes because their reading skills are not developed enough, assuring that letting them handle guns is an accident waiting to happen, Slattery said.
"It may not be in three years or four years or five years, but there will be a significant injury that is not necessary."
Dr. Kathryn Nichol, a pediatrician in Madison and former board member of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said 10-year-olds are not old enough developmentally and don't have the judgment to handle guns.
"We have a role to protect, at times, this very vulnerable population when they can't protect themselves," she said, discounting the argument that always having an adult nearby is a safety guarantee.
"How often do you hear of a child drowning in a bathtub, for God's sake. And the mother is practically there."
Allowing 10-year-olds to have a true hunting experience by carrying a gun makes it more likely they will take up the sport for the rest of their lives, said Holperin, Wisconsin's former tourism secretary.
"Twenty or 40 years ago, there was just a natural assumption that the family unit would be there to interest the next generation and the generational heritage of hunting would occur naturally," he said. "That is not happening."
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)