Push on to legalize semiautomatic rifles for hunting
Might a change be coming to Pennsylvania’s woods?
Nate Jacoby hopes so.
The resident of Franklin in Venango County is a hunter and a shooter. He can’t always use the same rifles for both activities, though.
Semiautomatic rifles — including “modern sporting rifles,” such as the AR-15-style ones he prefers — are illegal for hunting.
“We have a lot of money tied up in these guns, and it kind of stinks that all we can do with them is target shoot and plink at the range all day,” Jacoby said. “We’re really behind a lot of other states on this thing.”
Indeed, Pennsylvania is one of just two states nationwide — Delaware is the other — that completely prohibits semiautomatic rifles for hunting.
Several state lawmakers, all Republicans from western Pennsylvania, are trying to change that.
House Bill 2333, introduced by Rep. Rick Saccone of Allegheny County, would legalize semiautomatics for all hunting, provided the guns were limited to carrying 10 rounds. House Bill 2230, sponsored by Rep. Greg Lucas of Crawford County, would legalize the rifles for hunting coyotes, foxes and woodchucks but limit the guns to calibers no bigger than .223 and to magazines containing no more than six rounds.
Senate Bill 1402, sponsored by Sen. Scott Hutchinson of Butler County, would allow semiautomatics to be used for hunting coyotes and woodchucks. It makes no mention of caliber or magazine capacity but would prohibit use of the guns when varmint seasons overlap with those for deer, bear and turkey.
“Pennsylvania’s the anomaly on this issue,” said Justin Leventry, chief of staff for Hutchinson, who introduced his bill after hearing from Jacoby. “This would provide some additional options for hunters.”
“To me, it’s a no-brainer,” added Saccone. “Even the most liberal states in the country, California, New York, Hawaii, Oregon, allow these. But Pennsylvania doesn’t. That doesn’t make any sense.”
The Pennsylvania Game Commission supports Hutchinson’s bill. It’s the only one whose language gives the agency some leeway in determining when and how the rifles are used, said Steve Smith, its legislative liaison.
“It really goes down to the three or four words (in the bill) that would allow the board to adopt additional regulations, if needed,” Smith said.
The commission might, for example, want to limit their use by wildlife management unit, or time of year, or prohibit them from being used at night, he said.
Legislation to legalize semiautomatic rifles has popped up on the state level in years past. This latest flurry is a reflection of how popular the guns have become, said Jake McGuigan, director of state affairs for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade association representing firearms manufacturers.
The modern sporting rifle boom began after the 2008 presidential election, when some feared an “assault weapons” ban, he said. They accounted for 40 percent of sales for some retailers then, he said.
While that’s slowed a bit, the rifles have remained popular, both with returning servicemen looking to hunt with the guns they know and those who like guns used by law enforcement, he added.
Despite some misconceptions, modern sporting rifles are not to be feared more than others, he said.
“They are not more lethal than other kinds of guns. They do not make the woods any less safe,” McGuigan said, noting that many states — including Pennsylvania — have seen record-low numbers of hunting accidents in recent years.
That’s true with one qualifier, said Rich Palmer, deputy director for field operations for the Game Commission.
“You can’t point to other states and say they’ve had more accidents (with semiautomatics) because no one measures it. I can tell you down to the time of day, the vegetation, almost the barometric pressure, when an accident occurred, but no one records the kind of action of the firearm,” he said.
Debating whether to legalize semiautomatics for hunting is “tricky,” said Lowell Graybill, president of the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen’s Club, the state’s largest hunter group. While a lot of traditionalists don’t see the need for them, they don’t want to align themselves with those restricting gun use either, he said.
“It’s a tough call,” Graybill added.
Ultimately, the Federation would prefer the commission be given some say in how and when they’re used, rather than legislators mandating anything, he said.
Brian Allison, an employee of Gun World in Harrisville, Butler County, said he’d rather not see the rifles in the woods.
“As far as I’m concerned, I’m happy with what we have now,” he said.
Wes Morosky, owner of Duke’s Sport Shop in New Castle, feels differently. He would like to be able to hunt with them. That might not include deer season, when 750,000 orange-clad hunters make the woods look like a “pumpkin patch” on opening day, he said.
“But if they did it for varmint and small game, I think that would be OK,” Morosky said.
The Saccone and Lucas bills have been referred to the House of Representatives game and fisheries committee for consideration. Hutchinson’s bill already has been unanimously voted out of the Senate’s version of that, and moved to the full Senate on first consideration.
Leventry said the hope is it can become law before year’s end.
Jacoby would like that. But he expects an “uphill battle.”
“There are a lot of old stereotypes and opinions to break down,” he said. “But these are just rifles, like any other one you’d pull out of your safe.”