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A yearslong effort at the State Capitol to abolish Minnesota's "shotgun-only" zone for deer hunting in most of southern Minnesota continues to inch along, this time with the opportunity for individual counties to cling to the status quo.

A bipartisan push for the change has earned support in the Senate, but there's still resistance in the House, where the tradition of outlawing rifles for deer hunting in more than a third of the state remains alive. As natural resource policy bills advance quickly this year in both chambers of the Legislature, there's still a chance for a breakthrough affecting the annual whitetail harvest — Minnesota's most popular form of hunting.

"Some people have this impression that rifles are this big, mean ugly thing," said Sen. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, a former firearms safety instructor for the Department of Natural Resources. "Rifles are safer than shotguns, period."

While deer hunters in northern Minnesota have always been allowed to choose between shotguns and rifles during the state's firearms deer season, it's been shotguns and muzzleloaders only since 1942 south of a line from Moorhead to Taylors Falls. Legal handguns also are allowed for deer hunting in the zone.

Drazkowski said many other states had similar hunting laws, but most have eliminated the restriction as antiquated. Now, according to research by Remington Ammunition, Minnesota, New Jersey and Massachusetts are the only three states where rifles can't be used widely for deer hunting.

In this year's proposed legislation in the Senate, Drazkowski and state Sen. Rob Kupec, DFL-Moorhead, have fashioned a bill that would leave only six counties as shotgun-only areas for deer hunting: Blue Earth, Dodge, Freeborn, Mower, Nicollet and Olmsted. As that policy bill has advanced, the Association of Minnesota Counties has been coaching other counties to speak up at the Legislature if they also want to be carved out.

Drazkowski, a lifelong deer hunter, said any denial of rifle use for deer hunting is unfair to hunters and presents safety risks. Rifles can increase success rates, reduce bad shots that cause undue suffering to wounded deer and improve hunter safety, he said. The Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, based in Grand Rapids, agrees and supports the change.

Historically, Drazkowski said, Minnesota initiated a shotgun-only zone when there was a desire to limit deer harvest in the face of a meager deer population in southern Minnesota. That rationale made sense at the time when less accurate shotguns gave deer a better chance to grow their herd, he said.

For decades since then, people have sensed that deer hunting in southern Minnesota is safer without rifles, in part because shotgun slugs in the old days wouldn't carry nearly as far as rifle bullets. But vast improvements have given modern shotguns a reliable effective range of 200 yards or more — on par with many rifles.

In Drazkowski's campaign to dump the shotgun-only law, he said he hasn't found any studies showing that shotguns are safer than rifles. Nor are shotguns associated with fewer hunting incidents, he said.

In Wisconsin, for example, total incidents per 100,000 deer hunters have trended downward since shotgun-only zones were dropped 11 seasons ago. In addition, previous reporting by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel showed a safety imbalance favoring rifle usage. Based on a 2003 Wisconsin DNR survey, 76% of Badger State deer hunters used a rifle and 24% used a shotgun as their primary firearm, the newspaper reported. Yet data from 1998 to 2008 showed 42% of shooting incidents involved shotguns.

In Pennsylvania, the General Assembly in 2005 received results of an in-depth study that said it's riskier for a deer hunter to shoot a modern 12-gauge shotgun on level terrain than it is for a hunter to fire a standard .30-06 rifle with an expanding bullet at the same deer.

That study, which included input from U.S. Army Armament Research, was titled "Do Shotguns and Muzzleloaders Pose Less Risk than Centerfire Rifles for Hunting Deer in Pennsylvania?" Pennsylvania dropped its shotgun-only zones after receiving the report.

Firearms safety experts at Minnesota DNR have gone on record as saying there's no qualitative evidence that shotgun-only zones are safer. Moreover, they have explained that most deer hunting accidents are attributed to tree stand mishaps or by hunters failing to identify the target or what's behind the target — a fault that's dangerous regardless of a hunter's firearm choice.

Yet in the Minnesota House, state Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, said there's been no clear "yes" or "no" within his caucus on the alleged need to scrap shotgun-only zones. Lots of people sense shotguns are safer than rifles, he said. Hansen hunts deer in southern Minnesota and he resides as chairman of the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee.

In the past, Hansen has been against the change called for by the Senate. This year, none of the policy bills from his committee address the issue, but it's possible a deal could be made during House-Senate natural resources conference committees, if there are any.