Decision prompted by DNR rule change comes amid debate over safety
The Belgium Town Board last week became the second township in Ozaukee County to consider, then reject a ban on rifles in advance of the gun deer season that begins next week.
Prompted by the Department of Natural Resources’ decision to allow rifle deer hunting throughout the state, including Ozaukee County, where it had long been prohibited, the board vote against a local rifle ban came after it heard from hunters opposed to the restriction as well as residents in favor of what they characterized as a needed public safety measure.
“There is nobody who doesn’t want to see someone get shot more than the hunters themselves. No one wants to get hurt,” Dan Large, an avid hunter who operates a pheasant hunting preserve in the township, said in arguing against the ban on Nov. 6.
“It’s not the type of gun, it’s the guys using them. We want everyone to be smart hunters, to be safe. But not everyone who drives a car is a safe driver.”
But a couple who have two children urged the board to ban rifles. They said they’re afraid to walk on their road during the deer season now and fear it will be more dangerous if rifles are allowed.
“We live near a farm field and have people shining all the time along our road,” the woman said.
“The initial study the DNR is basing its decision on was done by a hunter advocacy group, so I don’t think that should be considered,” the man said.
Last month, the Department of Natural Resources surprised local officials by announcing a rule change that allows rifles to be used throughout Wisconsin for deer hunting. Rifles had previously been banned for deer hunting in 18 heavily populated counties, including Ozaukee County, for safety reasons.
Shotguns that fire relatively short-range slugs have typically been considered the safer alternative to rifles in populated areas because of a reduced risk of stray bullets causing injury. Some high-powered rifle ammunition used for deer hunting has a range of more than three miles.
But the DNR, which has received support for the change at annual rules hearings held throughout the state for the last three years, is now arguing that hunting accident data shows rifles are no more dangerous than shotguns.
Although local governments can regulate the discharge of firearms, they can’t regulate hunting, which is the prerogative of the state. That means townships would have to prohibit the use of all or certain calibers of rifles year-round, not just during the deer hunting season.
There is also the question of how to enforce a local ban on rifles. Neither DNR conservation wardens nor the Ozaukee County Sheriff’s Department will enforce such local ordinances.
Town Chairman Tom Winker said the proposed ordinance was put on the agenda to have “a very friendly discussion on this.”
“I didn’t know rifles were already being used for coyote hunting,” Winker said.
Al Weyker Jr., who has a buffalo farm on Sunny Ridge Road, said he believes hunters are more educated now than in the past.
“Hunter safety course is mandatory for everyone who hunts,” Weyker said. “Most land is in private ownership, and hunters must get written permission. They know if they do something wrong, they won’t be allowed to hunt there again.”
Supr. Bill Janeshek said the town used to hire an off-duty sheriff’s deputy to patrol during the hunting season and split the cost with the Town of Port Washington.
“After a few years of patrols, we didn’t have any complaints and we stopped them. Maybe we should start them again,” he said.
Signs that inform hunters they must get written permission from landowners to hunt in the township are in poor shape or missing, Janeshek said, but they will be replaced before the gun season starts.