FRYE: Semiautomatic hunting debate not over yet in Pa.

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (TNS)

Maybe you've heard Pennsylvania Game Commissioners approved hunting with semiautomatic rifles starting this fall for small game, predators and varmints but not for big game.

But have you heard why?

Pennsylvania hunters will not be allowed to use semiautomatic rifles to hunt big game, such as the buck pictured above.

The people spoke. Namely, the older people.

They won't be around forever, so there's a good chance these rules won't be, either.

That's what commissioners seem to think, anyway.

Late last year, lawmakers removed the state's prohibition on hunting with semiautomatic rifles, opening the door for commissioners to incorporate them into seasons. Initially, board members said they'd go slowly, likely allowing them only in spots.

They changed direction in January.

Agency staff looked at the safety record of hunters using semiautomatics in other states, specifically those adjacent to Pennsylvania and those similar to it in terms of hunter densities. That work, commissioners said, showed semiautomatics are no more or less dangerous in the woods than any other type of firearm.

So they gave preliminary approval to allow semiautomatics for hunting all species, including big game such as deer, bears, turkeys and elk.

The majority of hunters contacting the commission since supported the idea.

As of this past week, about 850 people had written in support of the proposal, compared to 220 or so against, said Steve Smith, director of the commission's bureau of information and education.

A random survey of licensed hunters produced opposite results, though.

Listening to hunters: The commission sent a questionnaire to 4,000 adult hunters, residents and non-residents, who had a license last fall, said Coren Jagnow, chief of the commission's research and education division. Just more than 2,000 responded.

Fifty-five percent said they supported or strongly supported the notion of allowing semiautomatics for furbearers, she said, compared to 34 percent who opposed or strongly opposed it. Eleven percent had no opinion.

Fifty-one percent were OK with using them for groundhogs, compared to 37 percent against, and 42 percent supported them for small game compared to 46 percent against.

The real difference came with big game.

Jagnow said 28 percent of respondents supported or strongly supported allowing semiautos for big game hunting. But 64 percent opposed it, with 52 percent saying they were strongly opposed.

That convinced commissioners to back off.

“We listened to the public,” said commission president Brian Hoover of Delaware County.

“We saw the survey. We saw what the numbers were,” agreed commissioner Tim Layton of Somerset County. “It was pretty cut and dry at that point.”

So far, anyway.

As of now, the rules say semiautomatic rifles are legal for small game provided they are .22 caliber or smaller. They're allowed for groundhogs and furbearers with no caliber restriction.

There is no restriction on magazine capacity in any case.

NRA hoping to change commissioners minds: Commissioners said they have no specific plans to reintroduce the idea of semiautomatic rifles for big game.

That's what some still want. The National Rifle Association this past week emailed members urging them to contact the commissioners, asking them to change their minds again at their June meeting.

But commissioners said they think semiautos may come to Pennsylvania big game seasons eventually. They noted their survey showed opposition to hunting big game with semiautomatics was strongly age-related.

“The older they get, the less likely they are to support it,” Jagnow agreed.

That hints at what's perhaps to come, Layton said.

Some hunters surely will use semiautomatics for small game, coyotes and groundhogs, he said. If they do so safely, “that might be the bridge to using them for big game as people get more comfortable with them.”

“I don't think the semiauto question is going to go away,” Layton said. “I think it's going to be in the forefront for a while because our younger hunters, they're used to that format of rifle. They're going to continue to request it.”

They've got some work to do, Daley said.

Commissioners themselves largely were opposed to semiautos for big game initially, he said. They changed their minds after coming to understand their safety record and other benefits, he added.

Some other hunters haven't had that same “awakening,” though.

He suggested proponents of semiautos need to educate their fellow hunters so that they get on board.

“There are a lot of benefits to them. But a lot of hunters don't understand that yet,” Daley said. “And if they don't understand it, we're not going to force it down their throats.”