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Debate rises over when to get kids involved hunting

| Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013, 8:54 p.m.

The debate about whether Pennsylvania should do an about-face is under way.

The state — to great fanfare nationally — was the first in the nation to adopt Families Afield legislation, which removed the minimum age at which a child could go hunting.

The idea was to make it possible to recruit kids into hunting before they get swallowed up by other activities, such as baseball and soccer.

But now at least one Pennsylvania Game Commissioner wants the state to back away from that.

Commissioner Ron Weaner of Adams County believes the commission should establish some minimum age to satisfy sportsmen concerned about safety and the possibility some adults are shooting game and claiming it was their children.

“I keep hearing comments from people who see in the paper pictures of 3- and 4-year-old kids shooting deer. It's like, who are we kidding here?” Weaner said.

What the minimum age should be, he did not exactly specify. But he said he thought it should be no younger than 8.

“And if a kid is something younger, like 5, and he or she was a mentored hunter this year, if my proposal passed they would just have to wait,” he added.

If the Game Commission were to go that direction, it would do so counter to the national trend.

Since Pennsylvania removed its minimum hunting age and went to a mentoring program, 33 states have followed suit.

None has backtracked the way Weaner is proposing, said Evan Heusinkveld, director of government affairs for the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance, one of the national organizations that first pushed for the Families Afield program here.

In fact, most states are expanding their programs and removing additional barriers to make it possible for more people to try hunting earlier, he said.

The result has been at least 782,000 people introduced to hunting, about 50 percent of whom subsequently bought hunting licenses when they became of age, statistics show.

“Families Afield has proven not only to be an effective recruitment tool for new hunters, but also a fabulous means of retaining people in the sport,” Heusinkveld.

Fears that putting firearms in the hands of younger hunters would be dangerous have proven unfounded, he added. Research shows that mentored youth hunters are about four times as safe as adult hunters, he said.

“It's very comparable to young people driving a car,” Heusinkveld said.

“If you put a 16-year-old in a car, and their parent is sitting right there next to them, they're going to be less reckless than someone out by themselves.”

As for how big or small the issue of adults shooting game and claiming it was taken by a child might be, no one knows for sure, said Rich Palmer, chief law enforcement officer for the Game Commission.

“I can't put a gauge on it for you,” he said.

Commission president Ralph Martone of New Castle suspects “the good still outweighs the bad” in that situation. But hunters younger than 12 are required to get a mentor tag, he noted.

The commission should pull those tags — to see just how many young children are going into the woods and whether they are involved with any problems — before contemplating any changes, he said.

“Why address something that might be a very small number? It may already be self-regulated. I'd rather put the decision on when a child is ready on the parents,” he said.

Commission executive director Carl Roe said the agency would provide commissioners with all the data it has.

In the meantime, Heusinkveld said the groups who pushed for mentored hunting in Pennsylvania initially would oppose any attempts to scale it back now.

“Arbitrary age minimums are a thing of the past, and we'd like to see things stay that way,” he said.

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.

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