In an effort to keep hunting alive in Wisconsin, state senators were scheduled to vote Tuesday on a bill that would allow children as young as 10 to hunt with a rifle.
The bill, S.B. 167, would allow 10-year-olds to hunt, provided that a parent or guardian with a hunting license accompanies the child, that he or she is always within "arm's reach" of the child, and that the duo carry only a single firearm.
State Sen. Jim Holperin, D-Conover, said he's sponsoring the bill to "divert youth attention" back to the shrinking sport, countering the "increased urbanization and fragmentation" of young Americans and how they choose to spend their free time.
"It's to expose young people to the sport early in a meaningful way and to get their commitment to hunting, fishing and trapping that will hopefully last a lifetime," Holperin told FOXNews.com. "There's going to be attrition in the number of hunters over the years."
But critics say a potentially fatal accident is bound to occur if the Badger State lowers its minimum hunting age from 12 to 10.
According to Common Sense About Kids & Guns, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting children from gun deaths and injuries, there were 56 firearm deaths of children and teens in Wisconsin in 2005, including 20 suicides and three accidents.
In December, an 8-year-old Connecticut boy was killed when he accidently shot himself in the head with an Uzi at a Massachusetts gun fair. A police chief whose company sponsored the event and two other men were later indicted on charges of involuntary manslaughter.
"I wouldn't feel comfortable hunting standing next to a 10-year-old with a gun," said Wisconsin resident Shirley Lochowitz. "I'm not sure that age level has the full capacity of what could happen quickly without the child even realizing that something is going wrong. It only takes a split second."
Lochowitz, founder of Other End of the Barrel, a nonprofit group that promotes the safe storage of firearms, said her son — now 26 — survived a gunshot to the stomach when he was 12 years old. She said the boy who shot her son with a .22-caliber hunting rifle was 14 and had brought out the firearm to show his friends.
"There certainly could be a safety issue because they don't have the same maturity levels of other children," Lochowitz said of 10-year-olds. "Things are more likely to happen because they may not have the full understanding of what a gun can do."
Other organizations advocating stricter gun control are less concerned about the bill.
"Hunting is an activity that is highly regulated for safety of all concerned in the U.S.," Ladd Everitt, a spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said in a statement. "Our concern lies with screening processes for gun purchasers and concealed carry permit holders, dealer oversight, and other areas that have nowhere near that level of regulation and which are ridden with loopholes that allow dangerous individuals to gain easy access to firearms."
Holperin, the bill's sponsor, said opponents would have valid concerns if the legislation didn't contain "so many restrictions."
"Somebody's got to be standing right there," Holperin said, referring to the requirement that the accompanying adult be within arm's reach of the child at all times. "And it's not like this 10-year-old will have his or her own firearm."
Under current state law, Wisconsin residents as young as 12 can hunt if a parent or guardian is within voice or visual distance — or within "sight or sound," Holerpin said. Individuals must be at least 14 to hunt without supervision.
Greg Lawson, spokesman for the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance, said 30 states have no minimum hunting age, and 28 states — most recently Nevada — have created apprentice hunting licenses similar to Wisconsin's proposal.
"There's only been one incident with these apprentice licenses where there's been an accident," Lawson told FOXNews.com. "So it's extremely safe."
He said that accident involved a Pennsylvania boy who suffered a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his foot. Roughly 285,000 apprentice hunting licenses have been issued in those 28 states since 2006, he said.
"It's not like you're going to give a kid a gun and tell him to go to a field and start shooting stuff," he said. "This is about making sure they have the opportunity to learn about hunting and make sure there's a new generation coming in. It's about making sure that the tradition stays alive."
A total of 12.5 million Americans said they hunted in 2006, down from 13 million in 2001, or a 4 percent decline, according to the National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation.
Of those 12.5 million hunters, 91 percent were male and 10.7 million identified themselves as "big game" hunters, the survey found. And since a high of roughly 16.75 million hunting licenses were sold in 1982, that figure declined to 14.5 million in 2006, according to The Future of Hunting and the Shooting Sports, a 2008 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-supported report.
In Wisconsin, hunting is a $1.4 billion annual industry, with at least 600,000 deer hunting licenses sold each year, Holperin said.
"Hunting is a big deal in Wisconsin," he said. "A third of the state is forest land and the other two thirds are rural areas. The entire state is just good wildlife habitat — hunting is part of our culture in Wisconsin. I'm pretty confident [the bill] will pass."
If the state Senate passes the bill, it would then require approval from the Assembly and Gov. Jim Doyle.