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Lawmakers debate use of semiautomatic rifles for hunting

Bob Frye
| Monday, June 15, 2015, 8:48 p.m.

There's only one state left in the nation that does not permit hunters to use semiautomatic rifles in the field: Pennsylvania.

There was talk Monday of changing that.

The House of Representatives game and fisheries committee held a hearing in Harrisburg on two bills that would legalize that style of gun.

One, House Bill 233, sponsored by Rep. Curtis Sonney of Erie County, would legalize semiautomatic rifles of .223 or smaller caliber, with a six-shot capacity, for hunting coyotes, foxes and groundhogs. The other, House Bill 366, sponsored by Allegheny County lawmaker Rick Saccone, would limit centerfire semiautomatics to containing five rounds but makes no mention of caliber or species.

“That's the beauty of it,” Saccone told fellow lawmakers.

Under his bill, the Pennsylvania Game Commission, which makes the rules regarding firearm type, seasons and species for all other weapons, would make those same decisions in regards to semiautomatics, he said.

It has the support of the National Rifle Association and others.

Matt Hough, executive director of the commission, told lawmakers the commission supports legalizing semiautomatics. It doesn't necessarily prefer one bill to the other, he added.

It does want a say, though. The commission would like the authority to decide which species could be hunted with semiautomatics and when, limit the guns to having six rounds in the magazine and chamber, combined, and prohibit their use for any species during overlaps with deer, bear, turkey or elk seasons.

“As long as we can regulate, we're fine,” Hough said.

Representatives of sportsmen's groups were split.

Kim Stolfer, of McDonald, a certified firearms instructor representing the Allegheny County Sportsmen's League and other organizations, said he prefers Saccone's bill, as did Randy Santucci of McKees Rocks, president of the Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania.

Stolfer said semiautomatics are becoming “more and more accepted in hunting camps” across the country, for multiple reasons. They are no more or less dangerous than any other type of firearm, he said, but do reduce felt recoil and muzzle jump and allow a hunter to remain on target when making follow-up shots at game. That has been recognized elsewhere for decades, he added.

“It's just been a long tradition in many other states,” Stolfer said.

Santucci pointed out that semiautomatics are not new to Pennsylvania. Hunters in special- regulations areas — the most heavily-populated parts of the state, surrounding Pittsburgh and Philadelphia — can use semiautomatic shotguns to hunt deer, while hunters statewide can use them to hunt turkeys, waterfowl and small game, he said.

Legalizing their use would give hunters the same “rights and respect” their counterparts get nationally, Santucci added.

John Kline, representing the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs, said that group's delegates debated the semiauto issue at their spring convention and found no evidence they are unsafe or lead to inappropriate uses by sportsmen, Kline said. They didn't all agree on which particular bill to support, though.

A majority favored Bill 233 because it represents an “incremental approach,” Kline said, but others preferred Bill 366, while still others didn't like either, feeling they intruded on the Game Commission's sole authority to make the rules regarding calibers, magazine capacities and seasons, he said.

If any bill passes, there will be “perceptions” to overcome, Hough said, such as the safety concerns that have prompted some landowners to suggest they'll post their property against hunting before allowing semiautomatic rifles on it.

“We have to educate them,” Rep. Dan Moul of Adams County told him. “That's your job.”

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

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