Legal goof leaves Indiana rifles hunters out in the cold this deer season

Deer hunters in Indiana on public land this year can only use handguns, shotguns and muzzleloaders as approved firearms. (Photo: DNR Law Enforcement)

Deer hunters in Indiana on public land this year can only use handguns, shotguns, and muzzleloaders as approved firearms. (Photo: DNR Law Enforcement)

Officials in Indiana were forced to issue a ban on sportsmen taking deer with rifles on state and federal land after a law that was supposed to expand the practice instead cut it short.

The Indiana Department of Natural Resources issued the clarification to this season’s hunting regulations last week banning the use of rifles by deer hunters on public lands in the state, a practice that had been both legal and popular in the past. Hunters using a muzzleloader, shotgun or handgun can still use public lands as can rifle hunters on private land.

The mistake came in the language of a bill meant, ironically, to expand hunting opportunities by amending Indiana’s rifle season for deer hunting to allow the use of more rifle calibers. Instead, the act only applied to private land and eliminated public options.

“In an attempt to address last year’s rifle changes, the law was changed to something that likely differed from the intent of many involved,” said DNR in a statement. “Unfortunately, that sometimes happens in lawmaking. That fact was noticed recently, long after the guide was published, and there is no mechanism for changing the law until next year. The online guide has been updated to reflect the change. Without making any promises, we are working with legislators on changing this law for next year, but for this year, rifles can be used to hunt deer only on private property.”

The root of the problem came in 2016 when Gov. Mike Pence signed broadly supported legislation to establish rifle seasons for the Indiana deer hunters on public lands.

However, the legislation allowed only a limited array of approved calibers for hunters, a move criticized by outdoors advocates who championed this year’s reform that expanded the definition to allow more chamberings. The modification sailed through the House 90-8 and the Senate 41-8, but state Rep. Sean Eberhart, R-Shelbyville, author of the bill, said no one caught the error in its language until it was too late.

Eberhart says he hopes to come up with a legislative solution when lawmakers reconvene in January, but it will take effect next year.

According to DNR, hunters in Indiana harvested 44,673 deer using rifles last season, accounting for 37 percent of all animals taken.