Brace yourself. Between now and the statewide fish and wildlife hearings April 11, we'll hear panicky claims about the crossbow's evils and its supposed similarity to firearms.
That's because the Wisconsin Conservation Congress decided Jan. 7 to include an advisory question on its spring ballot asking if crossbows should be allowed for all hunters during Wisconsin's archery deer season. Currently, bowhunters must be at least 65 or have a handicap permit to use a crossbow.
Just so we're clear, an advisory question is just that: It tells the Congress what attendees think of an idea. If they approve, it usually shows up the next spring as a proposal at the hearings. If approved again, it usually goes to the Natural Resources Board for its OK, followed by a review by the Legislature.
Though uncommon, if an advisory question gets overwhelming support, the DNR Board or a legislator could try to fast-track the process. That's their prerogative, just as it was the Congress' prerogative to draft this question for April's hearings.
As usual, crossbow haters are railing against the idea, claiming "the public" never has supported crossbows for bow season. Hmm. If that's the case, why fear this question?
One thing we know: The Wisconsin Bowhunters Association, the question's chief opponent, will try rallying its members' opposition. That's their right. If WBH members share their leaders' crossbow hatred, they'll turn out and vote as directed.
What worries them, however, is that the issue won't die April 11 even if they prevail. It's not a binding referendum and, given the opponents' tedious and emotional arguments, it's possible the DNR Board and legislators will dismiss a vote that smells of ballot-stuffing.
After all, crossbows have enjoyed wide acceptance nationwide the past five years. For instance, Matt Knox, deer project coordinator for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, believes crossbow opponents have bored everyone with their attacks.
Virginia legalized crossbows for its archery deer season in 2005. "We decided we weren't going to fight all their accusations anymore," Knox said in an interview. "Their arguments are emotional and don't stand up to scrutiny, but they never stop repeating them. It's embarrassing we have to keep fighting crossbow wars. We're all deer hunters. Some people use a .30-06 and some use a .308. Is your rifle superior to mine?"
Knox said crossbows also help manage deer in urban areas, and they're user-friendly for older hunters. "No matter how we analyze the issue, crossbows are a winner," Knox said. "They give more people a chance to hunt deer, and they help people become proficient much faster than with a regular bow. Those are good things. It doesn't matter to us which weapon puts a hole in a deer as long as it's accurate and lethal. Crossbows are both."
Besides, crossbows have long spurred controversy. The sailor who doomed his ship by killing an albatross in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (1797–98) used a crossbow.
In his novel "The White Company" (1891), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ridiculed the crossbow's use in "manly and true" 14th century warfare. In the book, a knight insults a crossbowman, saying: "With all respect to you and to your bow, I think that is but a woman's weapon, which a woman can point and loose as easily as a man."
And some folks think Pope Innocent II issued an edict in 1139 that banned using crossbows against Christians in warfare. Some historians discount the story, believing it more likely the pope merely banned dangerous shooting competitions like the one immortalized by William Tell, in which he shot an apple off his son's head with a crossbow.
Closer to home, this debate reminds many of us of the early to mid-1970s, when traditional archers opposed people using compound bows during bow season. They considered recurves and longbows the only true bows. In fact, many of them never accepted compound bows, and only now align themselves with compound-bow shooters to oppose crossbows.
Our bow season survived that nonissue. And if crossbows become legal for all archers, bow season will survive this nonissue too.
Patrick Durkin is a free-lance writer who covers outdoor recreation for the Press-Gazette. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.