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Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher May 29, 2012

In Wisconsin recall, NRA says Dem challenger Tom Barrett voted to ban deer hunting guns

In the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall campaign, Democratic challenger Tom Barrett has been hit by Republican Gov. Scott Walker on his record as Milwaukee's mayor.

Taking a new tack, the National Rifle Association, which has endorsed Walker, goes back in time to attack Barrett's record in Congress, where he served for a decade before deciding not to run again in 2002.

In a radio ad that began airing in May 2012, two men talk about Barrett. Here’s part of the conversation:

Man 1: "Well, Barrett voted to ban 15 different kinds of guns, even a lot of common deer rifles."

Man 2: "I love my deer rifle. Barrett voted to ban ‘em?"

Man 1: "Yeah."

Wisconsin's gun deer hunting season is months away, but you can bet the hundreds of thousands of hunters in the Badger State took notice of the NRA's claim.

Is it on target?

To back its claim, the NRA cited Barrett's 1994 vote to ban the manufacture, sale and new ownership of 19 semiautomatic assault-style weapons. The measure was signed into law by President Bill Clinton, who said the guns "were designed to kill people" and "had no place on a deer hunt."

The law contained provisions, however, allowing sales of the guns to continue. And the law expired in 2004, after Republican leaders in Congress refused to consider renewing it.

Among the weapons covered by the law were semiautomatic rifles that had "an ability to accept a detachable magazine" and at least two of these characteristics: "folding or telescoping stock; a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon; a bayonet mount; a flash suppressor or threaded barrel designed to accommodate a flash suppressor; and a grenade launcher."

Does this apply to "a lot of common deer rifles" as the ad claims?

NRA’s evidence

NRA research director John Frazer cited five newspaper and magazine articles from the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the Soviet-model AK-47 assault rifle was becoming more popular with hunters in that area, including deer hunters. One gun shop owner was quoted as saying hunters had been using military-style semi-automatic rifles since before World War II. The Houston Post reported that, according to local gun shop managers, it was not uncommon for Texans to hunt with semiautomatic rifles. That article didn’t indicate, however, whether the specific guns targeted in the ban were commonly used for deer hunting.

On a national scale, American Hunter magazine praised the Heckler & Koch 91 as a hunting rifle for deer and other game, but didn’t indicate whether it was popular among deer hunters. In fact, the writer said the gun might be a "‘black sheep’ to traditionalists."

Similarly, American Rifleman praised a particular type of AK-47 ammunition for hunting white-tail deer, but didn’t discuss whether the gun itself was common among deer hunters. The magazine later reported, though, that "hundreds of thousands of shooters and hunters," including whitetail deer hunters, were using another gun covered by the ban, the AR-15.

So, there’s an indication that some deer hunters used the weapons targeted by the ban, but none of the articles was specific to Wisconsin. The NRA’s claim was broad in nature, but its ad is aimed at Wisconsin voters.

Wisconsin experts

We contacted three Wisconsin gun deer hunting experts.

Each said flatly that the banned weapons were not commonly used for deer hunting when the ban became law in 1994.

The experts were Tim Lawhern, administrator of the enforcement division of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the state agency that oversees deer hunting; Mark Toso, president of the Wisconsin Deer Hunters Association and Paul A. Smith, outdoors editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Each has more than 30 years of experience hunting deer.

Lawhern, who taught DNR hunter safety classes for 18 years, recalled that when he worked in the field in the mid-1990s he would see perhaps half a dozen hunters each season using an assault-style weapon.

Toso -- who said he recently ended his longtime NRA membership in opposition to many of the group’s political messages -- called the percentage of gun deer hunters using weapons covered by the ban "tiny" at the time of the ban. (His association has not made an endorsement in the governor’s race.)

And Smith said that from his experience, while firearms such as the AK-47 and the AR-15 "have gained favor among some hunters and sport shooters in recent decades, they constitute a small fraction of deer hunting rifles in use today and were an even smaller fraction in 1994."

Our rating

The NRA said Barrett voted to ban "a lot of common deer rifles."

The statement holds an element of truth in that some deer hunters used some of the weapons. But the statement ignores facts that create a different impression. Experts agreed that the once-banned weapons were not commonly used for deer hunting.

We rate the claim Mostly False.

Featured Fact-check

(You can comment on this item on the Journal Sentinel's web page).

Our Sources, National Rifle Association "Think again" radio ad, posted May 16, 2012

Interview and email interview, NRA Institute for Legislative Action research director John Frazer, May 22, 23 and 24, 2012

Interview, Tom Barrett campaign spokesman Phil Walzak, May 21, 2012

Associated Press, "Clinton urges hunters to help ban assault weapons," April 30, 1994

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Barrett rips Congress on weapons ban lapse," Sept. 14, 2004

John Pitta, Congressional testimony, April 25, 1994

U.S. House of Representatives, vote on assault weapons ban, May 5, 1994

Library of Congress, assault weapons ban bill, passed May 5, 1994

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, "2006 national survey of fishing, hunting and wildlife-associated recreation"

Interview, Wisconsin Deer Hunters Association president Mark Toso, May 24, 2012

Interview, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources division of enforcement and science administrator Tim Lawhern, May 24, 2012

Email interview, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel outdoors editor Paul A. Smith, May 24, 2012

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In Wisconsin recall, NRA says Dem challenger Tom Barrett voted to ban deer hunting guns

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