Pennsylvania hunters split on use of semi-automatic rifles

YORK, Pa. — In 2017, Pennsylvania became the last state to legalize semi-automatic rifles – including AR-15s – for hunting.

It looked like the guns might be allowed for furbearers, small game and big game, until something surprising happened: A survey showed hunters didn’t want them.

Ahead of the March 2017 Board of Game Commissioners meeting, the Pennsylvania Game Commission sent out 4,000 surveys about semi-automatic guns. The responses showed there was support for using semi-automatic guns for furbearers and groundhogs, but not for big game.

“Very many hunters who said in the survey that they currently own semi-automatic rifles did oppose it for big game,” PGC spokesman Travis Lau said.

Safety concerns

Lau said it might be because hunters felt deer hunting is fine the way it is. He said others thought it would make hunting unsafe, which the PGC couldn’t prove by looking at data from other states.

However, safety is what makes John Hunt of Peach Bottom Township wary about semi-automatic guns. The hunting safety instructor said hunters might be too focused on spraying their game to see what’s beyond.

“I don’t think you’re going to kill any more squirrels or small game animals with a semi-automatic firearm than you would a single shot,” he said. “I’m old school, but I have shot them.”

Others argue the opposite. Don Helms is an NRA-certified instructor who had a long career with the Baltimore Police Department. The Shrewsbury Township man fully supports hunting with semi-automatic guns.

After Senate Bill 281 passed in Maryland, restricting the type of guns residents could own, Don Helms moved to New Freedom.

“They’re accurate. They’re easy to operate, and you can become quite proficient with them,” Helms said about AR-15s, a common semi-automatic gun.

He’s used an AR-15 to hunt coyotes. He likes the gun because it has little recoil, and it’s possible to follow an animal’s movement while firing, as opposed to loading another round and sighting the game again.

“It can be a lot safer than bolt-action,” he said.

Caliber restrictions

Helms acknowledged that there could be a disadvantage with big game. Sometimes semi-automatic guns such as the AR-15 leave too small of a hole, making it difficult to track an animal’s blood trail.

Part of that might have to do with caliber. Lau said there are caliber restrictions for small game but not for furbearers. For example, a .223 caliber AR-15 couldn’t be used for small game, as it’s limited to a .22 caliber or less.

CeaseFire PA Executive Director Shira Goodman said she thought the Pennsylvania Game Commission made smart and safe choices about what firearms were allowed and for what game. Overall, when semi-automatic guns were legalized for hunting in Pennsylvania, Goodman said it wasn’t CeaseFire PA’s fight.

“While we don’t have a position on the merits of whether certain guns should be used for hunting certain game, we’re more concerned with the bigger picture and we’ll be watching,” she said.

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