David Levdansky: 'Go slow' on semi-automatics for hunting
The state Game Commission decision to allow semi-automatic rifles in deer woods raises questions
March 19, 2017 12:00 AM
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 prompted the Pennsylvania Game Commission 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 nonhunting public: After all, the commission by law is required to manage all wildlife in the interests of all citizens — hunters and nonhunters alike.
As that legislation progressed 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, game 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 commission 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 doubt there was enough time between the governor’s signature on the legislation and the commission’s initial unanimous vote to conduct a thorough review. Furthermore, commissioners’ defense of their vote is based entirely on one factor: safety. But is safety the only issue the commission should consider?
We hunters make up about 5 percent of the total Pennsylvania population. That doesn’t mean the other 95 percent are “anti-hunters,” but they are nonhunters. 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 nonhunters 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, limiting semi-auto rifles to a five-shell capacity magazine for hunting. But these guns come equipped to carry a 20-shell magazine. In view of the commission’s sudden “flip” from its original intention to carefully deliberate semi-autos for hunting, how can we be assured that the five-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 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 by moving so rapidly. The classic bait-and-switch tactic. Why?
I am a lifelong hunter who was taught the importance of one-shot discipline while qualifying for the Boy Scouts marksmanship merit badge, by my National Rifle Association-certified instructor and by my father, recognized for distinguished marksmanship during World War II.
All of my early 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 to be studied and thought through. We must manage change with deliberation so that hunters, and the honored tradition of hunting, do not suffer unintended damage we cannot repair.
The commission should table this misguided proposal at their March 28 meeting and allow for more public input from hunters and nonhunters alike.
Former state Rep. David Levdansky, a resident of Forward, served the 39th District from 1985 to 2010, including 20 years as a member of the House Game and Fisheries Committee. He has been a hunter and gun owner for 50 years (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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