When Brad Schultz went ruffed grouse hunting near his home at Lake Vermilion the other day, he climbed into his pickup truck with his uncased shotgun in the front seat and drove off down the road. ¶ A year ago Schultz, a Department of Natural Resources conservation officer, would have had to write himself a ticket for illegally transporting a firearm. But this fall, for the first time in 90 years, it's legal for Minnesota hunters to transport uncased shotguns and rifles in vehicles. ¶ "I felt a little uncomfortable because I'm not used to it," Schultz said.
That's likely the same reaction the law change will get this fall from many of the state's more than 500,000 hunters. Conservation officers have been getting calls asking about the changes. Schultz said he checked perhaps 25 grouse hunters over the weekend, and 75 percent of them had their guns cased, either because they were unaware of the change or chose to case their guns anyway.
The law change, passed by the Legislature last spring, has many implications and also affects duck hunters in boats, hunters using ATVs, archery hunters and people at shooting ranges. Some fear the change could lead to more hunting-related firearms accidents and increased poaching; others say it removes an annoying and needless restriction that inconvenienced hunters and shooters.
Whatever happens, Minnesotans probably won't see many pickups driving around with gun racks in their rear windows -- icons in some Western states -- because of key restrictions.
What the law says
The new law says a person may transport unloaded, uncased firearms in vehicles -- including ATVs -- while at a shooting range, while lawfully hunting on private or public land or "while traveling to or from a site the person intends to hunt lawfully that day or has hunted lawfully that day," unless they are:
• Within Anoka, Hennepin or Ramsey counties.
• Within an area where the discharge of a firearm has been prohibited, such as towns or municipalities.
• Within the boundaries of a city with a population of 2,500 or more.
• On school grounds or in areas otherwise restricted under other laws.
That means hunters could drive from one hunting spot to another -- even on a highway -- with an uncased, unloaded firearm, as long as they don't travel through a town of 2,500 or more. The change also makes it legal for duck hunters to carry uncased, unloaded firearms in their boats, which should make it easier to dispatch crippled waterfowl.
The law defines an unloaded firearm as one with no ammunition in the barrels or magazine. (See hunting regulations for details on muzzleloaders.)
The law's authors -- Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, and Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder -- say the intent is to allow hunters and target shooters to move from field to field at a shooting range or while hunting without having to case their firearms each time. It also was meant to prevent hunters from being ticketed for an inconsequential infraction.
Schultz said some hunters he's encountered like the change. "They said now they don't have to worry about a broken zipper on their case, or when they're done with a deer drive, they can climb in a vehicle without having to hunt for a gun case."
Bows, but no pistols
The law applies to long-barreled guns, and not handguns. The law also allows uncased bows and crossbows, but neither can be armed with a bolt or arrow.
DNR opposed change
The DNR opposed the change in a report to the Legislature earlier this year while the law still was being considered. The report said the change "will greatly increase the incidents of accidental firearms related injury and death of hunters in and around motor vehicles." It also said the change could cause confusion among hunters and risks changing the general public's acceptance of hunting.
But the law passed.
"We are hoping for the best," said Mike Hammer, DNR enforcement division education coordinator. "We think a majority of citizens will continue to unload and case their firearms just like they've done since 1917. But those who choose not to, our hope is that they practice really good gun safety and triple-check to make sure their firearm is unloaded before they transport it in a vehicle."
Meanwhile, the agency will educate young hunters taking gun safety classes about the new law. "But we're going to continue to recommend the safest thing to do -- and that's to unload the gun and put it in a case," Hammer said.
Doug Smith • firstname.lastname@example.org