116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Just like a charging buck, you’d better not turn your back on the Golden Dome of Wisdom when it comes to legislation involving animals and hunting. You never know what lawmakers will do.
Eleven years ago, with prospects for a bill creating a mourning dove hunting season in Iowa looking dim, pro-hunting lawmakers in the Iowa House converted a bill regarding raccoon hunting into a dove hunting bill. That nifty bit of crossbreeding allowed backers to skip the committee process and send the bill soaring to then-Gov. Terry Branstad, who signed it.
This year, in the final hours of the legislative session, a bill regarding hunting license fees and fines for poaching was quickly and quietly amended to add language allowing the use of semi-automatic AR-15-style rifles firing .223 caliber cartridges for deer hunting during a January antlerless season. Licenses for the new season come from any unused doe licenses left over from the regular deer hunting seasons. It swiftly passed the House and is now awaiting action by Gov. Kim Reynolds.
The bill also cuts the civil penalty for poaching an antlerless deer from $1,500 to $500. This provision was sought by the Iowa Farm Bureau.
“The purpose of this season is not to hunt for sport but to manage the size of the herd, which is why more efficient and effective firearms are being authorized,” said Republican Sen. Ken Rozenboom, of Oskaloosa, the provision’s main backer. Deer eat crops and run out in front of our vehicles, you know.
This idea drew immediate criticism, especially since the bill was approved on the same day an 18-year-old gunman toting an AR-15-style rifle shot and killed 19 students and two teachers during a rampage at an elementary school in Uvalde, Tex. It seemed like a sick joke.
Why would lawmakers want hunters blasting away at deer using an AR-15? Well, the truth is, the state already allows it.
In 2017, the Legislature approved a bill permitting Iowa deer hunters to hunt with rifles using straight-walled cartridges. According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources website, cartridges must be between .350 caliber and .500 caliber. No larger or smaller. The rifles can be semi-automatic or single-shot. There’s no limit on the size of magazines.
That includes AR 15-style rifles, such as the popular Winchester .350 Legend and .450 Bushmaster. Heck, under Iowa law, you can hunt deer with a revolver so long as its barrel is at least four inches long.
So the new law basically would allow the use of smaller .223 caliber cartridges for deer.
I grew up hunting with shotguns, for mostly waterfowl and pheasants, so this rifle stuff is not among my areas of expertise. I asked a couple of guys to help me out.
“It’s just such a non-issue,” said Ernie Traugh, who owns Cedar Valley Outfitters in Marion and hunts deer with a .350 Legend. But he understands the reaction to anything involving an AR 15-style rifle.
“It’s an emotional flashpoint,” Traugh said.
Traugh contends the smaller .223 caliber bullet is “absolutely capable of ethically hunting deer.” Ethical hunting means not rushing to take a bad shot, not leaving deer wounded and making sure there’s a safe background for your shot. Without a safe background, missed shots can travel more than a mile, he said. This is the sort of stuff we were taught in hunter safety class back in the day.
He doesn’t expect a spike in sales of AR-15-style rifles. And he says counties rarely have leftover doe tags in January.
But Larry Stone, an author, photographer and deer hunter going on 60 years, disagrees that the use of the smaller caliber bullets should be allowed. He forwarded me a letter he wrote to Reynolds urging her to veto the bill.
“A family member owns a .223 AR-15 rifle, which we enjoy using for target shooting. But safety training is crucial for this military-style firearm. And I don’t believe it’s an appropriate gun for deer hunting,” Stone wrote.
“In Iowa, shotgun slugs, and in some cases, larger caliber center-fire rifles, have proven their effectiveness for deer hunting,” Stone wrote. “The smaller .223 bullets could cause more wounding of animals. In addition, the high capacity magazines of AR 15 guns may tempt some hunters to shoot too quickly or to fire in vain at running animals — rather than taking the time to aim carefully to attempt a one-shot kill. This adds to the danger.”
In online articles addressing the debate over AR-15-style rifles for deer hunting, this is known as “spray and pray” hunting. Obviously, not ethical.
But there was no debate at our Statehouse. Like so many times before, this measure popped out of nowhere and was passed without a chance for the public to weigh in. It ran through the Legislature like a spooked whitetail deer. There was no time to explain what the bill does, its place in the context of broader hunting laws, why it’s needed and whether it’s a good idea to encourage the expanded use of these weapons. Did the DNR even ask for this bill?
Lawmakers should have understood that any action involving these rifles, which have been used in some of the deadliest mass shootings in our history, deserved a more serious discussion. Instead, they sent the bill at high-velocity straight to the governor. They didn’t care what we think.
Maybe lawmakers could have considered raising the legal age for acquiring these rifles and ammunition from 18 to 21. Or they could have discussed a waiting period for these purchases. It’s likely these are the exact kinds of discussions majority Republicans hoped to avoid by using the fast track.
I’m not in any way against ethical hunting. It’s the unethical lawmaking that has me up in arms.
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