Pennsylvania hunters will not be able to use semiautomatic rifles to harvest big game during the next hunting season.
State hunters will, however, be able to carry semiautomatic rifles for hunting small game and furbearers.
That decision is based on regulatory changes approved Tuesday by the Pennsylvania Board of Game Commissioners.
The commissioners in January gave preliminary approval to a proposal that would have allowed semiautomatic rifles to be used in any season where manually operated centerfire rifles now can be used.
The board Tuesday amended that measure, giving final approval to hunting small game and furbearers with semiautomatic rifles beginning in the 2017-18 seasons. It made no changes to the list of lawful sporting arms for hunting big game, such as deer, bear and elk.
Listening to hunters: Commissioners said a clear majority of Pennsylvania hunters voiced opposition to hunting big game with semiautomatic rifles at this time, and the board’s vote reflects that opinion.
Between the Board of Commissioners’ preliminary vote and the vote Tuesday, Game Commission staff conducted a scientific survey from a random sample of 4,000 of the state’s hunters, more than 2,000 of whom responded. The findings of that survey were presented to the commissioners at the board’s meeting Monday.
The findings of the survey show clear support for hunting furbearers (55 percent support or strongly support), woodchucks (51 percent support or strongly support) and small game (42 percent support or strongly support, and 12 percent neither support nor oppose) with semiautomatic rifles.
For big game, while 28 percent of survey respondents expressed support or strong support for semiautomatic rifles, 64 percent of respondents said they opposed or strongly opposed semiautomatic rifles for big-game hunting, with 52 percent saying they were strongly opposed.
The results bolstered the expressed opposition to hunting big game with semiautomatic rifles that appeared to a lesser extent in the written comments the Game Commission received in recent months.
“We listened to our hunters,” President Commissioner Brian H. Hoover said.
Last state to approve semiautomatic rifles: Pennsylvania historically prohibited the use of semiautomatic rifles for hunting, but a law that took effect in November enables the Game Commission to regulate semiautomatic rifles and air guns for hunting.
With Tuesday’s vote, Pennsylvania becomes the last state in the nation to approve semiautomatic rifles for hunting uses.
Following the vote, the commissioners said if growing support for hunting big game with semiautomatic rifles emerges at some point in the future, they will give consideration to further regulatory changes.
Fact-finding by Pennsylvania Game Commission staff revealed no higher incidence of hunting accidents in any state where semiautomatics are permitted, and many firearms experts have said they believe semiautomatics are safer, in that they allow for continuous focus on the target and often require the shooter to absorb less recoil.
The survey on hunting with semiautomatic rifles also showed greater support among younger age groups for semiautomatic rifle hunting, including the use of semiautomatic rifles to hunt big game.
But no such provision will be adopted for the 2017-18 license year.