By David Levdansky
Last year the Legislature and Gov. Tom Wolf removed a long-standing statutory prohibition against the use of semi-automatic rifles for hunting in Pennsylvania.
That legislation conveyed to the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) authority to regulate how, when and where semi-auto rifles could be used for hunting.
Game commissioners, sworn to represent and uphold the interests of the state’s hunters, should also consider the impact of permitting semi-automatic rifle use for hunting on the non-hunting public.
- READ MORE: Game Commission reminds hunters of rifle restrictions (11/23/16 statement).
As that legislation moved toward enactment, several Game Commissioners indicated publicly their intent to “go slow” in authorizing semi-auto use.
Some even shared possible scenarios, where semi-autos might be permitted for use in hunting predators, like coyotes, but not during the regular big game seasons for deer and bear.
But surprisingly, at their January meeting, commissioners voted unanimously to permit the use of semi-automatic rifles in all seasons, for all species and have indicated their intent to follow through and grant final approval to this sweeping proposal at their next meeting on March 28.
Anyone who followed this unfolding issue assumed from earlier PGC statements that the debate would “go slow,” following a conservative approach to introducing semi-automatic rifles into Pennsylvania hunting.
What happened in the course of a few weeks that caused the sweeping approval of semi-autos to be fast-tracked? It’s obvious that something influenced commissioners’ earlier stated intent to be deliberate in handling this issue. Is this part of a legislative deal in the works?
Game commissioners who have spoken about the unanimous preliminary approval stated their rationale this way–that other states have not experienced an increase in hunting accidents caused by hunters using semi-auto rifles in the woods.
But I question that enough time was available, between the governor’s signature on the legislation and the Game Commission’s initial unanimous vote, to conduct a thorough review.
We hunters make up about five percent of the total Pennsylvania population. That doesn’t mean the other 95 percent are “anti-hunters” but they are non-hunters. Their perception of hunters and hunting is vital to the continuation of our hunting traditions.
Moving so rapidly to permit semi-auto rifle use for all hunting will have unintended consequences.
From personal experience, I notice a difference in the reaction of non-hunters when I discuss hunting with a bow or a flintlock. They respect and support the ethical taking of game through methods that conform with the “fair chase” intrinsic to our hunting tradition.
My concern is with their perception of hunters when they see us using firearms designed for military purposes in the deer woods.
Eventually, there will be an accident involving a semi-auto rifle. It may even be an accident that has nothing to do with semi-auto technology, but the public won’t care about that.
All they will see is a hunter with a semi-automatic rifle designed for combat use, and they’ll blame all hunters and the Game Commission for whatever tragedy occurred. We hunters don’t need that kind of black eye. Is the rapid expansion of the semi-automatic rifle to hunt deer worth this risk?
The proposed rule implicitly recognizes this risk as it limits semi-auto rifles to a 5-shell capacity magazine for hunting. But these guns come equipped to carry a 20-shell magazine.
In view of the Game Commission’s sudden “flip” from its original intention to carefully deliberate semi-autos for hunting, how can we be assured that the 5-shell maximum will not soon expand, until the full 20-shell banana clip is legalized?
The deer woods will echo with “if it’s brown, it’s going down.” More errant shots, more deer wounded and left to rot in Penn’s Woods.
Several commissioners have defended their preliminary vote to authorize by saying hunter opposition was less than they expected.
It’s obvious that opposition was light because commissioners misled everyone. They initially said they’d take a slow and deliberate course.
People who are concerned about this trusted them to fully consider this issue, from all viewpoints.
But then commissioners surprised everyone with the unanimous vote and intention to move rapidly forward. The classic bait-and-switch tactic. Why?
I am a life-long hunter who was taught the importance of one-shot discipline while qualifying for the Boy Scouts marksmanship merit badge, by my NRA-certified Hunter Education instructor, and by my father, recognized for distinguished marksmanship during WWII Battle of the Bulge.
All my early shooting and hunting mentors reinforced the importance of minimizing a reliance on firepower but maximizing self-control while hunting, in the interest of safety, humaneness and the accuracy of my own shooting.
I believe we must continue to emphasize this ethic in training future hunters.
The use of semi-auto rifles for hunting undermines that ethic and will erode our standing in the eyes of public opinion, critical to our future.
I am not opposed to change. But this issue has many facets and ramifications that need studied and thought through. I want us to manage change with deliberation so that we hunters, and the honored tradition of hunting, do not suffer unintended damage we cannot repair.
The Game Commission should table this misguided proposal at their March 28 meeting and allow for more public input from hunters and non-hunters alike.
David Levdansky, a Democrat from Allegheny County, was a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from 1985 to 2010. He is a life-long hunter.