Tom Spithaler is frustrated that he and others can't use semi-automatic rifles to hunt in Pennsylvania. Oh, people can own semi-autos and shoot them. No problem there. But Keystone State hunters can't use these same semi-auto rifles to take game animals. Yet, at the same time, these same hunters can take semi-auto shotguns afield for waterfowl, small and upland game and, in certain jurisdictions, even deer.
This in a state that sold more than 900,000 general hunting licenses in 2010 (not including archery and muzzleloading licenses).
Though he lives in Washington State today, Spithaler grew up shooting and hunting in Butler County, Pennsylvania. He makes trips back home frequently and will inherit land there one day. He plans on retiring to the Keystone State, and he'd like to be able to use his AR-15 and other semi-automatic rifles for hunting.
So, over the last couple years, Spithaler, who is also president of the AR15 Hunters Association and marketing director for Olympic Arms, began contacting Pennsylvania legislators, wildlife and conservation officials, sportsmen and state media, trying to gather support for allowing semi-autos. Generally, it's been a frustrating experience.
"The hunters want semi-autos, especially the young ones," he says. "They know these rifles well, especially AR-15, and they want to take them to the field as a hunting tool. Frankly, there is no reasonable reason to prevent them from doing so, but the old codgers in power do not want semi-autos regardless of what brand or type they are, and so they fight it tooth and nail."
In communications with top people at the Pennsylvania Game Commission, Spithaler was told that semis are less safe than manually operated rifles and would result in more accidental hunting shootings. He asked for proof of this safety disparity but says he was given none.
The regulation goes back decades.
"It is likely that the prohibition was put in place early by the legislature, meaning as soon as semi-automatics became common in the marketplace," says Gerald Feaser, PGC press secretary. "In 1907, the General Assembly made the use of automatics illegal for hunting, so it would stand to reason that the prohibition on semi-automatics was likely implemented around that time or shortly thereafter."
The ban on using semi-automatics is found in Title 34 of the Pennsylvania Game and Wildlife Code. That code can only be amended by the state legislature, Feaser says. "The Game Commission has no authority to change Title 34."
Meanwhile, hunters have been using semi-automatic shotguns since 1951.
Chuck Lombaerde, president of the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs, says that, despite some spirited discussion on using semi-autos on the PFSC website message boards, "For now, in our organization, it's a non-issue." PFSC has approximately 100,000 members. Lombaerde has heard a few inquiries about adding semi-auto rifles to the list of approved hunting arms but finds no real groundswell to make it happen.
It may be a non-issue with PFSC, but there also appears to be some misunderstanding by Pennsylvania hunters regarding semi-automatic rifles. Based on contacts made by Petersen's RifleShooter and a scanning of state sportmen's message boards, at least some Pennsylvania hunters seem to be under the impression that — though they can't hunt deer and other big game with semi-auto rifles — small game hunting with a semi-automatic .22 rimfire is allowed.
Not so. "Semi-automatic rifles are illegal [for all hunting of wildlife], regardless of the caliber or if they are centerfire or rimfire," the Game Commission's Feaser says.
"Pennsylvania is the only state with a semi-auto rifle ban for hunters," notes Darren LaSorte, the manager for hunting policy at the National Rifle Association. "We've broached the issue a few times, but there have been bigger fish to fry after the resistance starts. As is usually the case, it's hunters who probably cause the biggest problem with regard to reform. They believe that hunters will be mown down like Wyoming prairie dogs if semi-autos are allowed."
LaSorte notes that NRA worked long and hard to bring Sunday hunting to the state, a failed effort — despite the fact that it would increase hunting time and contribute money to the state's economy.
"They've always done it a certain way and that's the way it has to be," say LaSorte, whether it's Sunday hunting or semi-automatic rifles.
That attitude is exactly what Spithaler has encountered.
"The problem is education, and I've been trying to provide that," Spithaler adds.
More than once, he says, he's offered to come to Pennsylvania at his own expense, with a variety of semi-automatic rifles, to put on presentations and give legislators and Game Commission officials hands-on shooting experiences. That way, they could see for themselves the rifles are safe and effective hunting tools. So far, though, Spithaler says he's had no takers.