Pennsylvania's hunting law takes precedence over local ordinances


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Last year, Janice Earl of Swisshelm Park heard shooting in the Nine Mile Run valley near Commercial Street. She questioned whether hunting was legal there, but the answer only left her more confused.

In outlying Pennsylvania communities steeped in rural tradition, a ban on discharging firearms may seem like a waste of good hunting grounds. In urban centers, shooting off any sporting arm may seem like a really bad idea.

As 700,000 Pennsylvania hunters prepare for Monday's opening of the statewide firearm deer season, ordinances in many of the state's communities and the city of Pittsburgh suggest that local authorities can decide when and where it's safe to hunt. Most municipalities have laws banning the discharge of firearms, and most of those ordinances include no exception for legal hunting.

"They need to reconsider their laws," said Jason Raup, assistant council for the state Game Commission, the agency charged with enforcing hunting laws. "Those authorities have no jurisdiction over the discharge of firearms dring the course of legal hunting and trapping. The law is quite clear -- state law supersedes local ordinances."

In fact, the state Legislature and relevant case law from Commonwealth Court and state Supreme Court stipulate that municipalities have the same limited authority to ban or permit hunting on public property as landowners have on private property. Hunting laws need to be uniform statewide to be effective, it was decided, and the state has sole authority to establish parameters regulating where, when and in what manner it is legal to hunt. Firearm discharge ordinances that do not provide exceptions for legal hunting are illegal.

It's even more complicated. In some municipalities, authorities may be aware that parts of their firearm discharge ordinances are unenforceable, but the laws are left on the books anyway to discourage hunting.

Pennsylvania landowners have total control of hunting on their properties. In addition, state law provides a "safety zone" restricting firearm hunting within 150 yards of occupied buildings, or 50 yards for archery hunting. But landowners can permit individuals to hunt within their safety zones.

Hunting in city parks including Frick Park is illegal. But the shooting heard by Ms. Earl was likely from turkey hunters legally hunting in season on private property with the permission of landowners who invited them into their safety zones.

"Well, that doesn't make sense," Ms. Earl said. "How does someone in Harrisburg know where it's safe to shoot in every little neighborhood across the state? Shouldn't local governments make that decision?"

The state of Pennsylvania says "no." Two landmark cases, from the state Supreme Court in 1964 and Commonwealth Court in 1987, established that because state law supersedes municipal law, the state's right to regulate hunting practices overrides local ordinances that regulate the discharge of firearms. The more recent ruling struck down a municipal ordinance in which hunting was permitted only with the approval of the local chief of police.

But that hasn't stopped communities concerned for the safety of their residents from posting ordinances that are clearly illegal. In the late 1990s, Dave Levdansky, a state representative at the time, was stopped by police for hunting in his own Jefferson Hills district in what police claimed was a violation of the borough's firearm discharge ordinance. Mr. Levdansky argued that the ordinance was unenforceable because it didn't include an exception for legal hunting.

"I was able to convince the police chief that you can't enforce that," he said. "The next year they quietly relaxed that law, and people are safely and legally hunting there now."

Relaxing the law, however, merely means that in hunting situations, the Borough of Jefferson Hills doesn't enforce its firearm discharge ordinance. Despite the incident with Mr. Levdansky, the law still includes no exception for legal hunting. Another section notes that state law supersedes any borough law.

In Thanksgiving week, Jefferson Hills authorities couldn't be reached.

"That's what they're doing," said Game Commission wildlife conservation officer Gary Fujak, who patrols parts of Allegheny County. "They write these discharge ordinances in, knowing they're unenforceable, but thinking they'll keep hunters out of their areas, and if it's ever challenged they'll drop it."

The wording of Green Tree's discharge ordinance directly violates both relevant case laws. It forbids the discharge of any firearm without a hunting exception, but "a resident ... may apply to the police chief and/or the mayor for permission to discharge any of the weapons ... on a controlled firing range, which permit must be renewed annually."

"None of that is legal without a provision for hunting," said Mr. Fujak, "and if it's challenged, they know they'll lose."

A few years ago, Pittsburgh City Council aggressively tried to extend its firearm discharge law to ban all hunting within city limits. Following discussions with the Game Commission, council quietly backed down on enforcement of the ordinance, but it remains on the books. Firearm hunting within city limits is rare, the Nine Mile Run valley case notwithstanding, but it's not uncommon for archers to quietly hunt for deer on private property with the owners' consent in parts of the city with broad wooded areas and feral farmland.

Public Safety Director Mike Huss, an avid hunter, said he knows of no hunting-related shooting accident to have ever occurred within the city. An avid hunter who volunteers with White Tail Management Associates of Greater Pittsburgh to trim deer populations in Allegheny County parks, he's been safety director since 2007. Mr. Huss said he doesn't hunt in the city.

"If you legally discharge a gun in a hunting situation, the city ordinance doesn't apply," he said. "State law supersedes it, but it has to be legal game, in season, with the landowner's consent and not violating any of the neighbors' safety zones. I think the answer in the city isn't firearm hunting, it's archery hunting. It's far less polarizing."

 


John Hayes: 412-263-1991, jhayes@post-gazette.com.

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