ST. PAUL -- Legislation that would eliminate the shotgun-only zone for deer hunting during the regular firearms season in Minnesota is once again on the table this year.
State Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent, and Sen. Jeff Howe, R-Rockville, are authoring the legislation this session after the push to eliminate the shotgun-only zone in the state gained some steam but was ultimately never passed in 2020.
An exception is made to allow local government units to prohibit the use of rifles on property under their jurisdiction during special deer hunts.
Proponents of getting rid of the shotgun zone say it would benefit hunters by simplifying the rules where all legal firearms could be used statewide. Currently, the state is broken up into two zones where hunters in the northern half of the state that is predominantly more wooded can use any legal firearm for big game, while hunters in the southern half with more open farmland must use shotguns with slugs, muzzleloaders or legal handguns.
“The objective of this bill is simply to allow people to add a few inches of barrel when they’re hunting,” Swedzinski said. “Rifles would increase ease of firearm use for youth compared with shotguns, something that is especially important as we look to entice younger generations of game enthusiasts.”
Those who favor the bill have cited studies and state-injury statistics that show rifles are no more dangerous than shotguns. Rifles typically have less recoil upon the shot than shotguns, making them more comfortable to use for some hunters.
Proponents also argue that advancements in shotguns and ammunition allow many hunters in the shotgun zone to already accurately shoot at distances well over 100 yards.
The legislation to remove the shotgun zone has the approval of one of the most influential deer organizations in the state.
“At last year’s annual meeting, the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association’s membership voted to support legislation that would remove the shotgun-only zone in Minnesota,” MDHA Executive Director Craig Engwall said. “This was based in large part on assurances from DNR Enforcement that this would not raise any safety concerns. We look forward to supporting legislative efforts to remove the shotgun-only zone this year.”
The Alexandria area is right in the middle of where the shotgun and rifle zones meet. Hunters in much of the eastern portion of deer permit area 213 are currently prohibited from using rifles, whereas those west of Garfield and north of I-94 can hunt with any legal firearm.
“I’ve asked people I know and it’s indifferent,” Alexandria’s Mark Nohre, the MDHA Region 7 Director, said of hunter reaction to the proposal to eliminate the shotgun-only zone. “They don’t seem to care if it’s shotgun or if it’s rifle .... All these areas are agricultural, and I actually think it’s a little safer than it is where I hunt up in the woods where you can’t see more than 100 yards.”
Proponents for keeping the shotgun-only zone in Minnesota in the more open agricultural areas of the state generally cite two reasons -- safety and the idea that rifles would do too much damage to the overall deer population with the ability to kill deer at longer ranges.
“When I went through firearms training (years ago), they taught us the reason it’s a shotgun zone around here is because it’s a safety issue because the slugs don’t travel as far as a rifle,” Nohre said. “One of our other members was brought up that the reason they developed the shotgun zone is rifles would kill too many deer.”
Nohre does not believe the use of rifles where deer drives -- the act of pushing deer from cover into more open terrain -- are a popular means of taking deer would present any greater safety risk than using shotguns.
“When you do a deer drive, you don’t have to shoot that deer from 100 yards and in,” he said. “You can shoot that deer from further out, which can give you a better view of where you’re at.”
Ultimately, he said, it comes down to hunters being responsible no matter what weapon they have in hand.
“It’s the No. 1 rule. Know what you’re shooting at and know what’s behind you,” Nohre said. “It’s no different if it’s a shotgun or a rifle. That’s the first rule.”
Swedzinski said the DNR has supported previous versions of bills aimed at removing the shotgun-only zone and there is confidence that the current legislation will receive approval from both Republicans and Democrats this session.
“I’m optimistic that, with the DNR on board and support from stakeholders, we can achieve bipartisan momentum in the Legislature and move this bill through the process,” Howe said. “I am continuing to work with fellow legislators to get them up to speed and look forward to committee hearings taking place so we can discuss this bill and its merits."