New Pennsylvania law gives hunters the option for semiautomatics
November 27, 2016 12:00 AM
A rack of semiautomatic rifles at Braverman Arms in Wilkinsburg.
By John Hayes / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It isn’t a sense of power in his hands, or the thrill of having the ability to kill. It’s not even the ear bursting BANG, BANG, BANG at the shooting range.
“People who don’t have guns never understand why we shoot,” said Stephen Ambrose of Washington, Pa. “For me it’s the accuracy, the control. When I can punch five holes within the size of a quarter with a semiautomatic tactical rifle, it’s a skill most people don’t have. I go out to the shooting range and work on it, just like another guy goes out to the driving range to try to improve his skill.”
A new tack on old legislation that recently blew through Harrisburg now allows Mr. Ambrose to turn his Bushmaster Quick Response Carbine toward developing another skill: hunting. But like using a screwdriver to do a hammer’s work, he may not want to take that particular gun into the field.
The law does not expand the type of guns that may be owned or possessed in the state. It doesn’t make semiautomatics legal for hunting during the upcoming firearm deer season, which opens Monday. The law also gives the Game Commission the power to regulate use of rifles powered by compressed air, gas or chemicals for the purposes of hunting. The board of game commissioners is expected set a regulatory structure in time for next year’s hunting seasons.
Pennsylvania thus becomes the last state in the nation to lift a ban on hunting with semiautomatic rifles. Delaware recently legalized limited use of semiautomatics during specific hunting seasons. For the first time since 1907, hunting with rifles that are not manually operated is legal in Pennsylvania.
Where similar bills languished in the legislature since the early 2000s, this one easily passed with bipartisan support. Titled House Bill 263, it was passed by the Senate on Oct. 26 by a 40-7 vote. The following day, HB 263 passed by a 160-25 margin.
Rep. Matt Gabler, R-Clearfield/Elk, cosponsor of the bill, primarily worked on the air-gun issue.
“Years ago it made sense to not allow the use of pellets or BB guns for hunting,” he said. “The goal in hunting is to have a clean hunt. But these modern weapons are far more powerful and accurate than the old lever action BB guns that we had as kids. The time is right to allow the Game Commission to decide when it’s appropriate to use [modern compressed air rifles] for hunting.”
Cosponsor Sen. Scott Hutchinson, R-Venango, wrangled colleagues to support the semiautomatic component of HB 263.
“I’ve heard from numerous sportsmen and women who would like to use the same semi-automatic rifles for hunting that they practice with at the firing range,” he said.
Semiautomatics are not machine guns — automatic weapons that fire multiple cartridges with the single pull of the trigger. The shooter of a semiautomatic has to pull once for each shot — the next cartridge is automatically pushed into the firing chamber. Guns with other types of actions — lever, pump, bolt and hammer — which require the shooter to manually move each cartridge into the chamber, have long been legal for hunting.
Semiautomatic shotguns are legal for waterfowl and small game hunting, but must be plugged to a three-shell capacity in the chamber and magazine. When using them with rifled slugs for deer in special regulation areas, the magazines do not require plugs.
The new law does not open the state to a new class of firearm. Semiautomatic rifles and handguns already are legal to own, possess, shoot and use for self-defense in Pennsylvania. The law expands their use to include hunting.
CeaseFire PA, a statewide gun-violence prevention association, remained neutral on the legislation as it worked through the General Assembly. But executive director Shira Goodman said she believes there's “more work to do.”
“We know that many Pennsylvanians, including many hunters, have serious concerns about the safety consequences of the potential regulatory changes and will be making their views known as the Game Commission considers whether and how to allow semi-automatic rifles to be used during future hunting seasons,” she said. “We will support these Pennsylvanians in making their voices heard and hope the Game Commission will consider these views in considering whether and how to allow the use of these weapons for hunting.”
Gov. Wolf’s office did not reply to multiple interview requests. One Harrisburg insider, who asked for anonymity because permission to speak on the subject had not been given, said the governor’s staff believes the board of game commissioners will move slowly in setting limits on caliber, species and hunting seasons. Like Delaware, the source said, Pennsylvania is likely start with the limited use of semiautomatic rifles for coyotes and foxes.
Mr. Ambrose said he supports the new law — “It’s about time,” he said — but he probably wouldn’t take his Bushmaster on a hunting trip. The barrel jacket, carry handle, pistol grip, collapsible butt stock, long magazine clips and smaller caliber are valuable in a firefight, he said, “but there’s no advantage to any of that when you’re hunting.”
Once the Game Commission has set regulations, hunters are more likely to go for semiautomatics that look more like a traditional hunting rifle and shoot a higher caliber bullet.
“When you go into the woods next year, you won’t be seeing assault-style rifles,” said Scot Thomasson, director of communications for American Firearms Retailers Association. “First, the .223 caliber isn’t big enough for most hunting situations — they’d more likely get a 7.62 mm, which is about equivalent to a [.30 caliber] .308.”
Hunters of big game, which include deer and bear, might pick up a semiautomatic Remington 700, or a Browning .308.
Jake McGuigan of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, another trade association, said hunters are divided over the increased firepower brought by semiautomatic actions.
“Happens every time these guns are legalized,” he said. “But we haven’t seen an increase in [hunting-related shooting accidents] because of this. And we’re not seeing mangled game. If anything, the semiautomatics are more humane because they give hunters a second shot faster, before the animal runs away.”
Mr. Ambrose said he’d consider a semiautomatic for deer hunting, when they’re legal.
“I don’t really see an ethical problem or a safety problem or really any problem with them,” he said. “They’ve been using semiautomatics for hunting in other states for years. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
John Hayes: 412-263-1991, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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