Recently, after many public meetings and as many sources of funding, a local borough opened a public skateboard park for area youths.  During the first week, vandals spray painted graffiti in the park.  The reaction from the borough was immediate and came as no surprise.  An official said that if it happens again, he will close the park and turn it into a basketball court. 

That is the usual government solution to criminal behavior.  Instead of working to find the culprits, it is just easier to close the park and punish everyone, including those who are good citizens and obey the rules. 

Some feel this is the case as the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) works to establish a shooting range special use permit for non-hunters on its public ranges.  In recent years, vandals and other criminals who aren’t hunters have defaced some of the ranges.  In the Northeast part of the state, it has been reported that terrorists used one range to practice shooting their weapons.  Recently, a shooter was murdered in order for criminals to obtain his firearms. 

The PGC proposal would require anyone who doesn’t have a current hunting license to buy a permit, costing about $30, in order to use their ranges, which are located throughout the state on game lands.  It is not clear yet if the license requirement also includes non-residents.  Ohio and West Virginia already have a range permit system in place in their states. 

The PGC has already closed about half its shooting ranges, which should help law enforcement better police those that remain open.  Some feel that isn’t happening.  So if law enforcement officials can’t enforce the range rules already in place, how will they be able to enforce this extra regulation? 

Shooters already contribute millions of dollars to the Pittman-Robertson Fund, which is an excise tax on both firearms and ammunition.  Some of this tax is used to purchase the game lands where the shooting ranges are located. 

A shooting range permit may be seen as an additional tax above and beyond the very high costs and taxes associated with buying a firearm in the first place.  If a rifle costs $400, the excise tax of 10 percent adds another $40 to the price, almost all of which goes to state wildlife agencies. 

At the same time, other users of game lands aren’t required to contribute anything to the PGC.  This includes bird and elk watchers, hikers, horseback riders, mountain bikers, fishermen, and geocachers.  And anyone can visit the wildlife centers at Middle Creek and Pymatuning free of charge. 

The PGC makes its case by stating that these permits will provide much needed revenue for range maintenance.  The PGC has not received a general hunting license increase since 1999, going on twelve years ago.  But in many cases, the costs associated with PGC permits outweigh the money collected. 

Some law enforcement officials argue that the bulk of those who use the ranges shoot firearms that are unlawful for hunting, such as semi-automatic rifles.  So they should pay for a permit to use the ranges.  But this is just anecdotal information.  There are no records of what types of firearms are used at ranges, and this is seen by some as an additional excuse law enforcement uses because it can’t or won’t enforce shooting range regulations. 

Another anecdote concerns who is actually using the ranges.  Some in the PGC have stated that participants who don’t have a hunting license are hogging the ranges, which limits the practice time for non-hunters.  But this data have not been released either, so there is no way to tell if it is accurate. 

The PGC feels that if non-hunters are required to buy a shooting range permit, it will give them incentive to buy a hunting license instead.  We hope this is the case.  It may just drive shooters to go to other remote parts of game lands and do their shooting wherever they feel like, creating more damage and disturbance to wildlife. 

Those who purchase a shooting range permit will have their personal data stored in a database so the PGC will have a record of those who use the ranges.  This may be a way to help law enforcement track down alleged criminals if a crime does occur at a shooting range or nearby.  Conversely, this data could also be used as another way for government to identify gun owners in the state.  Based on the current federal administration’s track record on gun issues, this should be an unsettling alarm bell to all gun owners.    

This permit proposal may just divide hunting and non-hunting gun owners at a time when we need to be united.

Yes, the PGC needs more revenue.  And the PGC needs to maintain its public shooting ranges.  But it also needs to make a case that it has done all it can in the law enforcement arena by enforcing current range regulations, before adding new burdens on middle class gun owners.   It shouldn’t punish everyone for the acts of a few miscreants. 

And hunters and shooters must do their part by reporting any suspicious activity on game lands ranges, as well as cleaning up after themselves.  Instead of just throwing up their hands and asking the PGC to do more, they need to take some responsibility and assist law enforcement in its efforts to keep shooting ranges safe and functioning properly.

Based on the diminished number of ranges, along with more and more regulations, it seems the PGC’s ultimate goal may be the closing of all public ranges on game lands.  That would be a big loss to hunters.   – Roxane Palone