Harrisburg — The history is clear.
Just two states in the country, Pennsylvania and Delaware, completely prohibit hunting with semi-automatic rifles. When talk has turned to perhaps changing that here, the Game Commission has had a standard response.
“Historically we have been very close knit on this issue, where we’re not in favor of it, primarily for safety issues,” said Tom Grohol, director of the agency’s Bureau of Wildlife Protection.
That may be changing.
Three bills that would legalize semi-autos in some form or fashion have been introduced in the state Legislature.
One, Senate Bill 737, would legalize their use for hunting groundhogs and coyotes, and allow the commission to regulate things like caliber and magazine capacity.
Another, House Bill 366, would allow hunting with semi-automatic centerfire rifles with a five-shell magazine capacity, and hunting with semi-automatic rimfire rifles without restriction on magazine size. It makes no reference to species or seasons.
A third, House Bill 223, would allow coyote, fox and groundhog hunting with semiautomatics no larger than .223 caliber and with a magazine capacity of six rounds.
Commission officials believe some bill, be it one of those three or a variation, is likely to pass sooner rather than later, like it or not.
“We can sit here and say no, with our heads in the sand. And when the train goes by, we can see how many heads are left,” said board President Dave Putnam.
“We need to find which piece of legislation we can live with and get on board with it,” agreed Commissioner Tim Layton, of Windber.
The most “palatable” bill right now is the Senate Bill 737, sponsored by Sen. Scott Hutchinson, of Butler County, board members and staff agreed.
That’s not to say it’s unanimous.
Commissioner Ron Weaner, of Adams County, said he doesn’t support allowing semi-automatics into the woods here, nor does he think most sportsmen want it. Rather, this is an issue being driven by manufacturers, as was the case with the push to legalize crossbows several years ago, he said.
“They want Pennsylvania, they want the market that’s here,” Weaner said.
Commissioner Bob Schlemmer, of Export, likewise said he’s not a fan of allowing semiautos. He said he could envision a scenario where a hunter, chasing coyotes, fires a burst of a half dozen shots at 3 a.m. The following morning, the farm where that occurred will be posted against hunting, he predicted.
“I see a problem out there,” Schlemmer said.
Other commissioners disagreed. Brian Hoover, of Delaware County, said hunters have been using semi-automatic shotguns to hunt deer in special regulations areas for years and years. It’s caused no problems with safety or public concern, he said.
What’s more, such rifles are increasing in popularity among hunters, he added. “The future is changing, and we’ve got to get where the future is going to be,” Hoover said.
Those who oppose the legalization of semi-autos, at least in his area, think the woods will suddenly be filled with AR-style guns, said Commissioner Charlie Fox, of Bradford County. That’s the perception, he said.
Commissioner James Daley, of Butler, a hunter education instructor for 35 years – said that won’t necessarily be the case. But even if it is, the commission and hunters need to remember that semi-autos are neither more or less inherently safe than other guns.
“It’s just another way to get a round into the chamber,” he said.
Executive Director Matt Hough said that if lawmakers are going to permit these rifles, he would like to start “small,” with the commission having some control over species, magazine capacity and seasons.
If that’s the case, the board should make that clear to lawmakers, and get behind a particular bill, said the commission’s legislative liaison, Josh Zimmerman. Simply asking lawmakers to pass a very vague bill, allowing semi-autos, but otherwise leaving every other decision to the commission, isn’t likely to gain traction, he added.
“I think a gradual implementation is going to be a whole lot easier to take for those guys,” Zimmerman said.
Putnam said the board will make its feelings known to lawmakers. That could take the form of a formal resolution, but more likely will just involve communicating with legislators, he said.