As Senate negotiations continue on a possible deal to address gun violence, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) was asked why Americans would need an AR-15. His argument to CNN on Tuesday: The semiautomatic rifle can be helpful in shooting prairie dogs in his home state.
Thune, the Senate minority whip, also echoed his fellow Republicans in calling for greater focus on guns and mental health issues, saying, “So I just think that the issues that they should be focused on is how do you keep those types of weapons out of the hands of these young — in this case, male — very deranged, young men.”
The remarks, which have been viewed millions of time on social media since Tuesday morning, follow arguments from other Republicans in the weeks after the mass shootings in Buffalo, Uvalde, Tex., and Tulsa that Americans needed access to AR-15s — a military-style rifle — to kill feral pigs, hunt hogs and get rid of raccoons. A prairie dog averages 12 to 16 inches in length and weighs 1 to 3 pounds, according to the National Park Service.
Thune’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment early Wednesday.
The discussion surrounding access to AR-15s comes as senators are calling for patience amid talks on a legislative package that could include the first significant federal gun restrictions in three decades, along with provisions dealing with school security and mental health. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said his chamber would vote on it “in the near future,” while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) noted that it was “way too soon” to predict how many Republicans might ultimately come along.
“We don’t have an agreement yet,” McConnell said, adding, “I personally would prefer to get an outcome, and I hope that we’ll have one sooner rather than later.”
As expectations for a quick deal faded Tuesday, actor Matthew McConaughey, a native of Uvalde, urged lawmakers to act on gun control in impassioned remarks delivered in a surprise appearance on the White House briefing room’s podium. An emotional McConaughey told the stories of the 19 children and two teachers killed by a shooter at an elementary school on May 24.
“Responsible gun owners are fed up with the Second Amendment being abused and hijacked by some deranged individuals,” McConaughey said. “These regulations are not a step back, they’re a step forward for civil society and the Second Amendment.”
A longtime supporter of gun rights, Thune has voted against mandatory background checks at gun shows and longer mandatory waiting periods to buy a firearm, according to the Mitchell Republic, a South Dakota newspaper. He was vocal in his opposition to any gun legislation last year that “could violate the privacy of law-abiding citizens exercising their clear 2nd Amendment rights.” The senator has an A-plus rating with the National Rifle Association, and his campaigns have received more than $638,000 in contributions from the NRA during his career, according to data compiled by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence in 2019.
While more than 5 million prairie dogs were estimated to have roamed the American Plains before 1800, the range of prairie dogs has shrunk to 5 percent of its initial size and two of the five species in existence are threatened or endangered, according to the National Park Service. A 2008 outbreak of the sylvatic plague further decimated the population in South Dakota, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says. But the population of prairie dogs, which covers most of the western two-thirds of the state, has become so stable that control measures have been taken to limit the damage the animals cause on some private land, according to South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks.
Hunting prairie dogs is allowed year-round, and there are no restrictions on how many are killed — or what firearms are used.
“There are no restrictions on caliber of rifles and/or handguns,” the Game, Fish and Parks website says.
As Democrats and other critics push to restrict AR-15 sales, some Republicans have argued that the rifles are needed for hunting.
When Vice asked Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) last month why Americans should still have access to an AR-15, he pointed to the feral pig population in Louisiana, which the state estimates at 700,000.
“If you talk to the people that own it,” Cassidy said, “killing feral pigs in the, whatever, the middle of Louisiana, they’ll wonder: ‘Why would you take it away from me?’ ”
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) was asked the same question on Twitter last week. In addition to arguing that AR-15s are necessary for target sport and self-defense, Gaetz said the rifle is needed for “hog hunting.”
The issue came up again at a congressional hearing last week, when Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) said that “blaming the gun for what’s happening in America is small-minded.” Then Buck, who was seen with an AR-15 mounted on his office wall in 2020, pointed to how the rifle was useful in killing raccoons.
“In rural Colorado, an AR-15 is a gun of choice for killing raccoons before they get to our chickens,” he said. “It is a gun of choice for killing a fox, it is a gun that you control predators on your ranch, on your farm, on your property.”
Buck added: “The idea that somehow we’re going to deny access to — I think there are 20 million AR-15s in circulation in this country — it makes absolutely no sense. And it’s unfortunate.”
Thune’s prairie dog argument has faced blowback. Tennis legend Andy Roddick pointedly posted a photo of a grown prairie dog.
Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter was killed in the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., reminded the Republican what AR-15-style rifles have done in school massacres.
“@SenJohnThune in my state and many others, they use AR 15′s to shoot children,” Guttenberg wrote.
Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) agreed, again pushing for something to be done to address the gun violence caused by AR-15s and similar firearms.
“Across the country ‘they use them to shoot’ human beings in schools, grocery stores, hospitals, churches, synagogues, malls, bars, and workplaces,” Beyer tweeted. “If you think shooting ‘varmints’ is more important than preventing mass shootings of children at elementary schools, you’re wrong.”