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Game commissioners prepare to pull the trigger on semiautomatic rifle regulation [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette :: BC-OTD-HUNTING-SEMIAUTOMATIC-RIFLES:PG]

For many decades it's been the culture of the Pennsylvania Game Commission to go slow, move conservatively, when its board determines it's time for a significant change.

Even after legislative approval the board's biggest regulatory changes - compulsory wearing of blaze orange, mandatory hunter-trapper safety education, deer management policy and the crossbow - were phased in over years, sometimes to the consternation of impatient hunters.

"Traditionally the Game Commission has been conservative about new things, going back a long time," said spokesman Travis Lau. "When the last semiautomatics bill was being debated (in 2015), executive director (Matt) Hough testified that if it passed they'd be legal for coyotes, foxes, maybe groundhogs only, at first."

The state legislature deliberated for some 15 years about someday maybe considering the possibility of legalizing semiautomatic firearms for hunting. Late last year, lawmakers finally passed the measure with bipartisan support.

Pennsylvania is the last state to approve some use of semiautomatic rifles for hunting. Semiautomatic shotguns are legal for hunting with some restrictions.

The law does not apply to handguns or expand the types of guns that may be owned or possessed in the state. It permits the use of rifles powered by compressed air, gas or chemicals for the purposes of hunting, as well as the use of air guns for some species, and calls on the Game Commission to regulate their use.

Within weeks of passage, Gov. Tom Wolf approved the law under the assumption, said staff, that the board of game commissioners would, following longstanding policy, move slowly in setting limits on calibers, species and hunting seasons in which semiautomatics could be used. In December the agency signaled that its intentions were to gradually expand legal use of the new sporting arms.

"But you can never tell, though," Lau said. "Sometimes they surprise you."

In January, the board unexpectedly gave unanimous preliminary approval to regulations that would make semiautomatic rifles legal for nearly all hunting including small game, furbearers and all big game animals. Magazines would be limited to five rounds, with one in the chamber, and caliber restrictions would be established.

If passed as expected at the board's March 27-28 meeting, a "sunset provision" would make the sporting arms legal from July 1 through June 30, 2020, when commissioners would re-evaluate the regulations and vote on their permanence.

Semiautomatic rifles are not "machine guns" - automatic weapons that fire multiple cartridges with the single pull of the trigger. The shooter pulls once for each shot, and the gun pushes the next cartridge into the firing chamber.

Game Commissioner Bob Schlemmer of Export, Westmoreland County, Pa., said he was initially uncertain about permitting full usage of a new category of sporting arm so soon, and at this time can't say how he'll vote.

"What turned the tide on how (commissioners) felt about it was the extensive report that staff did," he said. "They were looking at the accident rate. That's what we were getting beat up over."

The Game Commission was unable to provide data from that report. While safety was initially a concern everywhere that semiautomatics are legal for hunting, no comprehensive data from state wildlife agencies could be found showing that the use of semiautomatic sporting arms increased the number or severity of hunting-related shooting incidents (the firearm's type of action is not included in hunting safety reports).

On bar stools and chat sites, Pennsylvania hunters are on both sides of the issue.

At a big-box outdoors store in the Pittsburgh area, Dean Gatlin of Monroeville said he's looking forward to getting his black steel .308-caliber Century Arms C308 Sporter with a five-round capacity off the range and into the field.

"I think about it all the time when I'm shooting," he said. "Why shouldn't it be good for deer hunting?"

Just down the aisle, Stephen Donohue of Turtle Creek was less impressed with the idea of semiautomatic hunting.

"I've never needed more than two shots to kill a deer," he said.

Pennsylvania's 2015-16 harvest of 315,813 antlered and antlerless was up about 4 percent over the previous season's estimate. Few hunters would complain if semiautomatic rifles killed more coyotes, but what if the increased firepower killed more deer? What if it maimed more?

The Game Commission's research on the hunting impact of semiautomatic rifles in other states was conducted by the Bureau of Wildlife Management, but Schlemmer said the report was purely safety based.

"We didn't get into the wildlife management of it," he said. "I have not heard of any legislators asking about that. Not to my knowledge."

State wildlife agencies don't match up firearm harvest estimates with the guns that got the deer, and everything from regional unemployment figures to rainy days can impact hunters' success. But all of Pennsylvania's neighbors permit some hunting with semiautomatic rifles, and some interesting comparisons can be drawn from their records.

Before hunting with semiauto rifles became legal in New York, hunters took 242,957 deer in 2012 and 243,567 in 2013, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation. After their use was approved, the harvest dropped to 238,672 in 2014 and 202,973 in 2015.

It is illegal to use rifles of any kind to hunt for deer in Ohio. Figures from the Department of Natural Resources show that in 2015 firearm hunters tagged 73,392 whitetails during the week-long season. Last year they took 66,759.

Wildlife agency law enforcement officers are generally unwilling to go on the record criticizing their employer, and an Internet search found no data or articles about the enforcement of semiautomatic hunting rules. But it's easy to wonder how a WCO would know if a hunter popped out a five-round magazine and slapped in a 20-capacity replacement.

Despite calls placed by Game Commission staff to the wildlife management agencies of other states, Schlemmer said he wasn't aware of whether questions were asked about law enforcement.

"I guess you could go into that, but you'd be bringing in another thing," he said. "I have not personally gotten into it."

Another of those bar stool, chat site issues discussed among Pennsylvania hunters concerns what prompted commissioners to change their minds so quickly. Could it be as simple, as Schlemmer said, as a favorable safety record for semiautomatic rifles?

That's it, he said. No backroom deals, no hand washing another, no political tradeoffs linking the two biggest hunting-related issues coming out of the General Assembly in the current session: semiautomatics and the semi-autonomous setting of license fees.

"I have never heard that," he said. "Not even in private with the (other commissioners). It's not that complicated. To be honest, I don't know why this is going on anymore."

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