In two weeks – Aug. 15, to be exact – I plan to be seated in a tree stand situated on the edge of a crop field in the steamy Lowcountry of South Carolina.
That’s opening day of the earliest white-tailed deer season in the U.S., which offers the best shot at taking a buck with its antlers still fully encased in velvet.
That’s pretty cool for me, but probably irrelevant to all of you. What you might find interesting, however, is that hanging on the trunk of the tree beside me will be an instrument that’s the subject of great debate in Pennsylvania right now.
I will be hunting deer with my Remington R-15 rifle chambered in .30 Remington AR.
It’s a semiautomatic rifle – a firearm that’s presently banned for hunting in Pennsylvania.
That could change if House Bill 366 is passed.
Introduced in June by state Rep. Rick Saccone of Allegheny County, the bill would change current law so that semiautomatic, centerfire rifles would be legal for hunting, unless they hold more than six rounds, including the one in the chamber. (The magazine for my R-15 holds four rounds, and then the chamber holds one more.)
Also legal would be semiautomatic, rimfire .22-caliber rifles with built-in ammunition limits.
Pennsylvania is one of only two states that doesn’t allow hunters to use semiautomatic rifles. Delaware is the other.
That’s not a state Game Commission rule. It’s state law.
Is it time to change the law?
I think so.
I have hunted big game with a semiautomatic rifle in several states that allow them. I don’t understand why they shouldn’t be legalized here.
IN THE NAME OF SAFETY
I’m aware of the argument that hunters will just “spray and pray.” That is, they’ll just squeeze the trigger again and again as they shoot at a running deer.
Well if you’ve been out in the woods during the firearms deer or bear seasons, then you’ve certainly heard fast shot volleys. That’s hunters emptying their pump, bolt and lever-action rifles as fast as they can.
It’s not a good idea to shoot at deer that way, but what’s the difference if hunters do it with a pump-action rifle or a semiautomatic?
There are some who would argue it’s better to shoot like that with a semiauto. Since all you have to do is squeeze the trigger, you never have to take your face off the stock, and can keep your eye on your target at all times.
A hunter unloading on a running deer with a lever, bolt or pump rifle most likely lifts his head away from his scope or iron sights whenever he works the rifle’s action. So he periodically loses his sight picture. That’s when accidents happen.
But remember; I’m not advocating for taking shots at running deer with whatever type of rifle you shoot.
One shot, one kill is my philosophy.
And if that’s a guiding principle for hunting, then what difference does it make what rifle you’re shooting?
At some level, carrying a firearm into the woods carries with it a certain amount of personal responsibility.
It is possible to use any firearm responsibly. It’s also possible to use any firearm irresponsibly.
Here’s something else to think about. I see an awful lot of people out at Lancaster County gun ranges shooting semiautomatic rifles. People like to shoot them. And if that’s what they’re practicing with the most, aren’t they the firearms they’ll be most skilled with in the field?
Before I owned one, I used to think semiautos weren’t very accurate. I consider myself to be an average rifle shooter at best, and even I can hold a 2-inch group with my semiautomatic at 200 yards.
NOTHING NEW HERE
Pennsylvania already has some history with semiautomatic firearms when it comes to deer hunting.
In these Special Regulations Areas – Allegheny, Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties – firearms deer hunters are limited to shotguns and muzzleloaders. Those rules were put in place decades ago because public perception holds that those firearms are “safer” than centerfire rifles. (Two studies have found the safety claim to be at least unsubstantiated, if not false altogether.)
Anyway, the firearms limitations were put in place in those areas, which are Pennsylvania’s most heavily populated. The thinking was there’s not enough room to shoot centerfire rifles in those counties.
In a strange quirk of regulations that I’ve never understood, however, semiautomatic shotguns can be used by deer hunters in the Special Regs Areas. Those same shotguns can not be used by deer hunters anywhere else in the state.
So the one place Pennsylvania already allows semiautomatic firearms for big-game hunting is the same place where firearms restrictions exist in the name of safety.
Try to wrap your head around that one.
Brian Hoover, the Game Commissioner from Delaware County who represents the Southeast Region, is well aware of Pennsylvania’s experience with semiautomatic shotguns in the Special Regs Areas. He believes that experience is evidence that proves semiautomatic rifles can be allowed for hunting in the rest of the state without any dire consequences.
“One of the safety issues that people use in the argument against semiautomatic weapons is that Pennsylvania puts more hunters on the landscape than any other state,” Hoover said.
“My argument against that is that we have used semiautomatic firearms for 30-plus years in some of the most densely populated regions in the state with no major issues.”In Hoover’s mind, “a semiauto is just another way to feed ammunition.”
He believes, “the news media has everyone believing that ‘semiauto’ equates to a military weapon.”
“Pennsylvania tends to be the last at everything,” Hoover said. “Let’s move into the 21st century, both in our weaponry and our ability to hunt Sunday.”
SUPPORT FOR SEMIAUTOS
The National Rifle Association has thrown its support behind HB 366. In a prepared statement, NRA leaders said allowing semiautomatic rifles for hunting is the right thing to do to bring the sport into the modern era.
“Semiautomatic rifles simply give hunters a much greater ability to fire a timely and accurate follow up shot, which can be the difference between wounding or speedily taking a game animal,” the statement says.
“Another downside to manually operated firearms, when compared to a semi-automatic rifle, is the felt recoil. Larger calibers, including the popular 30-06 and larger, generate significant recoil that average shooters may not handle well.
“Gas-operated semi-automatics have less recoil, making them more user-friendly and safer, which also significantly improves accuracy.”
At a Legislative hearing on the bill held in June, Pennsylvania Game Commission Executive Director Matt Hough said he supports allowing semiauto rifles for hunting coyotes and foxes on a limited basis.
But he told state lawmakers not to expect those rifles to be allowed right away for hunting deer and bears.
According to published reports, Hough said the Game Commission is concerned about “the perception of hunters clad in camouflage, carrying military-style weapons,” an article in the Morning Call newspaper states.
Some landowners have threatened to post their lands if semiautomatic rifles are allowed for hunting big game, the article states.
State Rep. Bryan Cutler is the lone Lancaster County lawmaker to have signed on as a cosponsor to HB 366.
Not surprisingly, Cutler owns a semiautomatic rifle. In fact, he built it himself several years ago.
“I think it’s an option hunters should have,” Cutler said of semiautomatic rifles.
Cutler believes fears about semiautomatic rifles are unfounded.
“I think people confuse semiautomatic with full automatic,” he said. “Obviously there’s a big difference between the two.”
If semiautomatic rifles really were a safety concern, Cutler said, there wouldn’t be so many states that already allow them to be used for hunting.
“I kind of view (HB 366) as an upgrade in our laws,” he said. “It’s time to upgrade.”
HB 366 is currently being weighed by the state House Game and Fisheries Committee.
Do you think it should be legal to use semiautomatic rifles for hunting in Pennsylvania? Take our poll, and leave your comments below.