Top Senate Republican says his constituents need assault rifles to shoot 'varmints'

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Sen. John Thune (R-SD) said he doesn't want to ban military-grade assault weapons because his constituents use them to shoot prairie dogs.

A ban on military-style assault rifles — such as the ones used in recent mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York — looks less and less likely to happen, as Republican lawmakers say they are needed to kill small rodents.

Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-SD) told CNN on Tuesday that he opposes a ban on assault weapons because he claims South Dakotans use the AR-15 to kill prairie dogs and "other types of varmints." Prairie dogs are herbivores that on average are roughly a foot long and weigh 1 to 3 pounds, according to the National Park Service.

"In my state, they use them to shoot prairie dogs and, you know, other types of varmints. And so I think there are legitimate reasons why people would want to have them," Thune said.

It's not the first time in recent days that a Republican lawmaker has said military-style rifles are needed to kill tiny mammals. Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO) said during a hearing on gun violence on June 2 that his constituents use AR-15s to keep raccoons from eating chickens.

"In rural Colorado, an AR-15 is a gun of choice for killing raccoons before they get to our chickens," Buck said at a House hearing on gun safety measures. "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."

The AR-15 is also the gun of choice for many mass shooters, including the one in Uvalde, Texas, who killed 19 fourth graders and two teachers. The white supremacist shooter in Buffalo, New York, who gunned down 10 people at a supermarket, also used an AR-style weapon.

Democrats have been trying to work with Senate Republicans to come up with bipartisan gun safety measures they can pass in the wake of the spate of mass shootings. President Joe Biden has called for a ban on military-style assault rifles.

"A few years ago, the family of the inventor of the AR-15 said he would have been horrified to know that its design was being used to slaughter children and other innocent lives instead of being used as a military weapon on the battlefields, as it was designed — that's what it was designed for," Biden said in a June 2 speech calling for gun safety measures. "Enough. Enough."

Doctors say assault weapons such as the AR-15 are so powerful they can pulverize human bones, turn organs into mush, and leave exit wounds the size of an orange. An official in Uvalde who acted as coroner the day of the shooting at Robb Elementary School said he is haunted by the images of the children killed by an AR-15 rifle — where relatives had to provide DNA samples in order to identify some of the victims.

"The damage was so devastating in Uvalde, parents had to do DNA swabs to identify the remains of their children — 9- and 10-year-old children," Biden said in his gun violence speech.

Polling even shows that an assault weapons ban is popular. According to an Associated Press/NORC poll taken after the massacre in Buffalo, 51% of Americans support an assault weapons ban.

Democratic lawmakers immediately criticized lawmakers like Thune who used "varmints" as an excuse to keep assault weapons available to civilians.

"Let me be clear: the safety of our schools, grocery stores, and houses of worship is more important than pest control," Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA) tweeted. "Why don't you find a way to control your prairie dog situation that doesn’t put our kids at risk?"

Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY) echoed those sentiments.

"Protection from prairie dogs does not justify the countless tragedies and untold pain these weapons of war have inflicted on our kids and communities," she tweeted. "What an absurd justification from the 'pro-life' party."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.