YORK, Pa. (AP) — In 2017, Pennsylvania became the last state to legalize semi-automatic rifles - including AR-15s - for hunting. It looked like the guns might be allowed for furbearers, small game and big game, until something surprising happened:

A survey showed hunters didn't want them.

Ahead of the March 2017 Board of Game Commissioners meeting, the Pennsylvania Game Commission sent out 4,000 surveys about semi-automatic guns. The responses showed there was support for using semi-automatic guns for furbearers and groundhogs, but not for big game.

"Very many hunters who said in the survey that they currently own semi-automatic rifles did oppose it for big game," PGC spokesman Travis Lau said.

Safety concerns

Lau said it might be because hunters felt deer hunting is fine the way it is. He said others thought it would make hunting unsafe, which the PGC couldn't prove by looking at data from other states.

However, safety is what makes John Hunt of Peach Bottom Township wary about semi-automatic guns. The hunting safety instructor said hunters might be too focused on spraying their game to see what's beyond.

"I don't think you're going to kill any more squirrels or small game animals with a semi-automatic firearm than you would a single shot," he said. "I'm old school, but I have shot them."

Others argue the opposite. Don Helms is an NRA-certified instructor who had a long career with the Baltimore Police Department. The Shrewsbury Township man fully supports hunting with semi-automatic guns.

After Senate Bill 281 passed in Maryland, restricting the type of guns residents could own, Don Helms moved to New Freedom. Maddie Crocenzi

"They're accurate. They're easy to operate, and you can become quite proficient with them," Helms said about AR-15s, a common semi-automatic gun.

He's used an AR-15 to hunt coyotes. He likes the gun because it has little recoil, and it's possible to follow an animal's movement while firing, as opposed to loading another round and sighting the game again.

"It can be a lot safer than bolt-action," he said.

Caliber restrictions

Helms acknowledged that there could be a disadvantage with big game. Sometimes semi-automatic guns such as the AR-15 leave too small of a hole, making it difficult to track an animal's blood trail.

Part of that might have to do with caliber. Lau said there are caliber restrictions for small game but not for furbearers. For example, a .223 caliber AR-15 couldn't be used for small game, as it's limited to a .22 caliber or less.

CeaseFire PA Executive Director Shira Goodman said she thought the Pennsylvania Game Commission made smart and safe choices about what firearms were allowed and for what game. Overall, when semi-automatic guns were legalized for hunting in Pennsylvania, Goodman said it wasn't CeaseFire PA's fight.

"While we don't have a position on the merits of whether certain guns should be used for hunting certain game, we're more concerned with the bigger picture and we'll be watching," she said.

A problem with looks

The AR-15 is one of the more popular semi-automatic guns. The AR stands for ArmaLite, the name of the company that first developed the gun. It's commonly a .223 or 5.56 caliber, but there are rounds designed specifically for deer hunting.

It looks like a military weapon — black and lightweight. It's easily customizable, so owners can add different magazines, scopes and even a bump stock that can turn the weapon fully automatic.

Those who own them say that once you get beyond looks, the AR-15 is just another rifle.

Every member of Katy Keyser's family owns one. Keyser, of Newberry Township, even built her own. She said the same caliber bullet could be put into two different stock guns, but people would say the AR-15 is more dangerous, a concept she said has stemmed from media coverage.

"Why is that more deadly than even a handgun? Or a normal rifle?" she asked.

"I don't have any doubt in my mind that it's because of video games, because of movies, because of media," Kevin Neitzel, whose company, Accurate Sports, builds AR-15s said.

The gun or the person

The reasons AR-15 enthusiasts love the guns is also why they've been used in mass shootings. The gun is light. It can shoot quickly, especially when a bump stock is added. And according to Goodman, an individual doesn't need good aim to do more damage, more quickly.

According to USA Today, the gun has been used in 12 mass shootings over the past 35 years, including in Sandy Hook, Las Vegas and the Sutherland Springs church.

"They are dangerous weapons," Goodman said. "It's not that they are scary looking, it's what they do and what they do in the hands of people who shouldn't have them that is scary."

AR-15 owners said it's the people, not the gun that's dangerous. "That style of the gun didn't shoot the people," Keith Sells, owner of Smoketown Gun Shop in Spring Grove, said.

Some AR-15 owners say they would like to see more educational opportunities so the public can see what the guns are like in the hands of responsible owners. Helms would like to see the NRA and local gun clubs open their doors to people with anti-gun sentiments. Once people shoot an AR-15 and learn more about them, he thinks they would feel differently.

Neitzel is also an advocate for going to a range and shooting an AR-15. He said that within a week's time of shooting one, a person will save up money and buy one.

And for those who say the guns are too dangerous to own, Neitzel offered this:

"Go shoot one and shut the hell up."





Information from: York Daily Record, http://www.ydr.com