They killed it again. That’s sixteen years in a row now.
The General Assembly has wrapped up its regular session for 2012, and there was no shortage of the usual rancor and partisan politics. Among the bills that ended up on the General Assembly’s cutting room floor was a measure that would have overturned the Commonwealth’s longstanding ban on hunting on Sundays.
Come this fall—that’s when the season for most game animals is in full swing—you’ll not see blaze orange-clad hunters heading into the woods on Sunday, as state law declares it to be “a day of rest for all species of wild bird and wild animal life.” Virginia is one of 11 states that restricts or bans Sunday hunting.
This prohibition is one of Virginia’s few remaining so-called blue laws. The statute specifically banning Sunday hunting first appeared in Virginia’s code around the turn of the twentieth century. Before that, laws dating as far back as colonial times mandated worship or rest on Sundays, and hunting may have been among the activities not allowed.
Nevertheless, Sunday hunting has been a hot-button issue for decades. Hunters have offered unsuccessful legal challenges to the ban. And each of the last fifteen times an effort to overturn the ban has been brought up in the General Assembly, it’s been shot down quickly.
But this year was different. The Department of Game and Inland Fisheries endorsed Sunday hunting. A bill to allow the practice on private land passed the Virginia Senate overwhelmingly. Much to the chagrin of pro-Sunday hunters, however, a House of Delegates subcommittee failed to advance the measure, meaning Sundays will continue to be off limits.
That’s just how Jim Hackett likes it. Hackett is the chairman of the Virginia Hunting Dog Alliance (VHDA) and a passionate defender of the Sunday hunting ban. He’s been hunting for 35 years, and his group represents almost 60,000 Virginia hunters.
“VHDA does not believe that [repealing the Sunday hunting ban] is the right and moral thing to do,” he says, pointing out a few key arguments.
Giving hunters an extra day afield amounts to taking a day from those who enjoy other recreational pursuits—hiking and horseback riding, for instance. It’s a matter of fairness, and Hackett describes staying out of the woods one day a week as a measure of good faith.
Moreover, Hackett says, supporters of Sunday hunting are largely urbanites and big businesses. He says that a Department of Game and Inland Fisheries survey that found that 62 percent of Virginia hunters support Sunday hunting doesn’t truly reflect the mood among the most important stakeholders here—rural residents and landowners themselves, whom Hackett estimates oppose Sunday hunting about three to one.
Finally, Hackett warns that all Virginia hunters must tread carefully in crafting their image among the citizenry at large. Somewhere around quarter million Virginians hunt, less than three percent of the total population. Public perceptions of the sport influence legislation, and if hunters come to be known as an inconsiderate, greedy lot, well, there might be little tolerance for the sport among the vast majority who don’t hunt.
“Who will be the first target?” asks Hackett. “The most visible people: hound hunters.” As far as keeping the ban on Sunday hunting, he says, “we don’t believe that it’s only good for dog hunters, we believe that it’s good for all hunting interests.”
Matt O’Brien couldn’t disagree more. O’Brien is a Suffolk resident who has become somewhat of an unofficial spokesman for overturning the ban. He created a Facebook page called “Legalize Virginia Sunday Hunting For All” which, to date, has more than 3,200 members. The law prohibiting Sunday hunting is antiquated and an imposition, O’Brien says, and it’s slowly squeezing the life out of Virginia’s constitutionally-protected right to hunt.
The future of hunting in Virginia, says O’Brien, depends on passing along knowledge of the sport to younger generations. The number of hunters going afield each year is less than half of historic levels, and supporters of Sunday hunting say one reason is a lack of time.
O’Brien is a father of four young kids and explains that work and family obligations Monday through Saturday leave little time to impart his love for hunting to his children. “You only get so much time as a dad that you have influence over your kids,” he says. “I see that influence slipping by.”
O’Brien says the arguments for keeping the ban in place aren’t logical. A landowner has the absolute prerogative to keep people from hunting on his land on Sunday if he chooses. And Virginians are allowed to shoot guns on Sunday, just not at animals.
“The law change we seek does not say that you must hunt on Sunday. I fully support anyone’s choice not to be in the woods on Sunday. That’s freedom and liberty. But by the same token, don’t tell me that I can’t because you don’t want me to.”
Supporters of Sunday hunting say, too, that the season they’re allowed in the woods with guns is relatively short—two months at most depending on the county and the weaponry, and in many places it’s much shorter than that. Birdwatchers, mountain bikers and the like already enjoy their pursuits for much of the year without hunters.
Even so, O’Brien says, hunters as well as other outdoor enthusiasts have shown that they can coexist peacefully. “The statistics show that hunting is by far one of the safest activities for those who are participating and for those who are in the woods where it occurs,” he says.
The fear of sharing the countryside with hunters is irrational, according to O’Brien, as is the belief that opening up Sunday will somehow lead to the end of hunting with hounds. O’Brien and Hackett disagree on whether Sunday hunting caused restrictions on dog hunters in other states.
Although they’re on opposite sides of this issue, O’Brien and Hackett both share a commitment to defend their cause, and they’re gearing up for the legislative session next year, when the ban is sure to make it before the General Assembly again. For now, anyway, they’ll have all the Sundays they need to prepare.