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Hunters' group tries to chart new course on guns

Friday - 4/19/2013, 11:58am  ET

In this photo taken on Friday, April 12, 2013, Gaspar Perricone, 29, cleans one of his guns at his home in Denver. “We are pro-gun, there’s no two ways about that,” Perricone said in an interview, stressing that his group opposes bans on assault weapons or high-capacity magazines. “But we’re also mothers and fathers....We don’t want to see another Newtown.” Perricone co-founded The Bull Moose Sportsmen’s Alliance, a group that took the unusual step earlier this month of releasing a poll that showed wide support among hunters for universal background checks. Most public polls have shown about 90 percent of voters support such a measure. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

NICHOLAS RICCARDI
The Associated Press

DENVER (AP) -- Gaspar Perricone got a child-size .22-caliber rifle for his first birthday. In high school, he went duck hunting before class and stowed his shotgun in his pickup. Then he went to work for a Democratic U.S. senator and formed a group to promote hunting and fishing issues. Now he has landed in the wide-open space between the two poles in the national gun debate.

The group Perricone co-founded with another former aide to Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, The Bull Moose Sportsmen's Alliance, took the unusual step this month of releasing a poll that showed wide support among hunters for universal background checks. Most public polls have shown about 90 percent of all voters support such a measure. Perricone followed up with a piece in the Washington-based publication Politico arguing for such a plan. And he met with President Barack Obama during the Democrat's trip to Denver this month to promote Colorado's state-level gun-control initiatives.

"We are pro-gun, there's no two ways about that," Perricone, 29, said recently in an interview, stressing that his group opposes bans on assault weapons or high-capacity magazines. "But we're also mothers and fathers. ... We don't want to see another Newtown."

As is often the case in politics, the loudest voices in the gun-control debate that resurfaced after the massacre in December at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., have come from the opposite ends of the ideological spectrum.

The National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups have strongly objected to the White House's gun-control package, and pressure from them led to the defeat of a series of Senate measures this week. Gun-control groups have countered with the body counts from Sandy Hook, the elementary school in Newtown, Conn., where 20 children and six adults were killed after the gunman killed his own mother, and Aurora, Colo., where 12 people died in a movie theater shooting in July.

In the middle are groups like Bull Moose, which says its membership includes about 5,000 hunters and anglers across the country. Before Sandy Hook, the group's main foray into Second Amendment issues was to support federal legislation that made it easier for the government to help fund shooting ranges.

Dave Workman, editor of The GunMag, has worked for hunting and gun-rights publications for decades, and he distinguishes between hunters and strong gun-rights activists. "A lot of hunters are not really political animals," Workman said. "They just want to go out and kill a deer, shoot a duck or whatever."

But Workman said increasing numbers of hunters are alarmed at new gun-control proposals and are becoming more active in the fight for firearms rights. "You have a crossover bunch, and it's growing," he said.

Jonathan Cooper, a former director of South Dakota's Department of Game, Fish and Parks, said that most hunters he knows worry about gun violence and favor regulations that are frowned upon by groups like the NRA. The issue came up at a recent dinner of a duck-hunting group in Pierre, S.D.

"Those guys said, 'If there's a chance that we can do something to stop another Sandy Hook from happening, it is our responsibility as sportsmen,'" said Cooper, a gun collector and former firearms dealer. "That's where we start to get out from underneath the porch, in the mind of some of those NRA people, and they think you're a dirty, rotten communist."

As the White House has pushed to expand gun restrictions after Sandy Hook, it has reached out to gun enthusiasts like Cooper and Perricone, both of whom met with Vice President Joe Biden's task force on gun violence. "As responsible gun owners, we just thought it was important for us to be part of that conversation," said Tim Mauck, Bull Moose's other co-director and a county commissioner in rural Clear Creek County, west of Denver.

Individual sporting groups historically have stayed relatively quiet on firearms issues, deferring to shooting organizations like the NRA. One vivid example of why came in January, when a Pennsylvania gun show announced it would not sell assault rifles in the wake of the Newtown shooting. The NRA helped organize a boycott that led to organizers canceling the show.

American Wildlife Conservation Partners, a coalition of 42 outdoor-oriented groups that includes the NRA and many hunters organizations, sent a letter this month to senators warning against "unnecessary restrictions of our ability to attain and possess legal firearms." It supported increased school security and mental health screening but was silent on firearms restrictions or universal background checks.

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