Attack of the killer potatoes

Oct. 8, 1993

When spud guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have spud guns.

That day may come to pass. State Sen. David Zien (R-Eau Claire) has requested the Wisconsin attorney general's office to look into the legality of spud guns. A spud gun, which is basically a 4 1/2-foot piece of plastic tubing, fires a potato when hair spray is ignited. No injuries or acts of vandalism have been reported from their use, but Zien reportedly is seeking a ban.

That would seem like a surprisingly tough measure against potato violence, even more surprising from a politician who normally poses as a Harley-driving opposer of helmet laws and defender or the right to bear arms.

Zien said he made the request after watching a demonstration of the device.

"It's amazing that [such a small amount] of hair spray could fire that potato out of sight. I was amazed at the accuracy of that weapon.

"If you would shove gravel in [the barrel] or put a beer bottle wrapped in a rag in, this would be a tremendously lethal weapon."

So would, say, buckshot, or pointed pieces of lead fired in rapid succession from a metal tube.

But the spud gun is not a gun, said Zien's office. Rather than classify spud guns as weapons, the senator would like to ban them as explosive devices akin to pipe bombs. Unlike a pipe bomb, which is a closed system and bursts when pressure builds, a spud gun has an open end, through which the potato and gas exit. The PVC tubing used in the guns is designed to withstand 280 pounds of pressure.

And what stand does the Wisconsin Pro-Gun Movement take on this issue? No stand whatsoever, said Jim Fendry, the movement's director; it takes no position. He and the senator discussed the matter before Zien wrote to the attorney general.

The spud gun is not a firearm, said Fendry, because it doesn't use gunpowder. And according to Fendry, federal regulations state that anything with a barrel diameter of more than a half an inch, or .50 caliber, is not a firearm, but a "destructive device."

Furthermore, said Fendry, the movement focuses on the interests of 1) sportsmen, 2) personal protection, and 3) the Second Amendment.

Fendry explained that the Second Amendment, in its "well-regulated militia" clause, allows people the arms necessary to act as light infantry, but nothing heavier. A potato gun is a "crew-served" weapon, he explained, since it requires one person to load the potato and another to fire it, and so therefore would not be a light infantry weapon.

Now there's a constitutional interpretation you don't hear often. Here's the scenario. Wisconsin is invaded, or order breaks down to the point that Wisconsinites must take up arms. A well-regulated militia, armed well enough to act as light infantry but nothing more, is caught in a deadly hail of radishes by, I don't know, Canadians. They could answer back with their own volley of cukes but, no -- the Constitution says they cannot. They must practice restraint. Fortunately, they have assault rifles.

"If they start to use gun powder," said Fendry, "then this would fall under the purview of firearms, then we would take an interest."

So the group has no position on spud guns. Fendry drew the example that a restrictive anti-knife law might come up, "but at the same time we're not the National Knife Association."

Nor the National Russet Association.

The National Rifle Association, however, did offer this view. While there are restrictions on bore diameter involving gunpowder weapons, said an NRA researcher, there is no upward restriction for black powder weapons, such as muskets and muzzle loaders. And there are no bore restrictions for gas or other propulsion.

The NRA liaison to Eau Claire said the organization had no position on spud guns, since they are not firearms. In past years the NRA has lobbied against putting different-colored dyes in explosives to make it easier for of law enforcement agencies to track their use by terrorists.

Wisconsin already has plenty of laws on its books concerning vandalism, property damage and assault, regardless of what sort of vegetable is used.

Amid the usual flurry of legislation every session, a spud gun bill may go over like a lead tater tot, but the issue will still take the time of the attorney general's office, and the time will be billed to the taxpayers. An informal opinion is expected from the office within a few days.

© 1993 Randel Shard. This article appeared in the Oct. 8-14, 1993, issue of Isthmus.