A constitutional right to hunt? Voters in three states to decide.

Voters in at least three states will decide whether to enshrine a right to hunt in constitutions. Critics see the measures as a political 'wedge' issue.

Ralph Capasso of Durham, N.C., aims at a quail in fight in North Carolina's Caswell County. North Carolina is one of at least four states where this year's ballot includes an initiative to guarantee a constitutional right to hunt.

Mark Simpson ventures into the woods every weekend during deer season. He began hunting with his dad 35 years ago and says he can't imagine a time when hunting would be banned.

"Entire families get together every year," says Mr. Simpson of Little Rock, Ark. "There is a fellowship element."

Worries that hunting will one day be banned or restricted – the result of the work of animal rights activists or of "liberals" in control of Congress – are leading more states to establish "a right to hunt and fish" in their state constitutions. This year, residents of Tennessee, Arkansas, and South Carolina will vote on right-to-hunt initiatives, and North Carolina and other states may yet add hunting-related constitutional amendments to their ballots. [Editor's note: This sentence was changed to reflect the fact that North Carolina does not currently have a right-to-hunt amendment on the ballot. The gun lobby plans in May to push the legislature to add one.]

"It's better to be safe on the front end than wait and deal with the problem when it's too late," says Steve Faris (D), an Arkansas legislator who sponsored a ballot measure to make hunting a constitutional right here. "Hunting is a right that is a given, but it could be taken away – especially when we see more lawsuits asking for all kinds of hunting to be banned."

A constitutional hunting right

Ten states already include the right to hunt in their constitutions. Vermont, way back in 1777, gave its citizens a right "to have the liberty in seasonable times, to hunt and fowl on the lands they hold, and on other lands not inclosed." Rhode Island guaranteed that right in 1844.

More recently, Ala­bama in 1996 added hunting and fishing rights to its constitution. Since then, other states have followed suit. In 2008, a right-to-hunt amendment passed with 80 percent approval in Oklahoma.

In Arkansas, a recent poll shows 54 percent of residents support the initiative.

But this isn't an issue solely in the South. California, too, is considering such a protection.

"It goes to the liberal nature of our nation's government and California's government. We are going to lose all our gun rights," says state Assemblyman Bill Berryhill (R). "They do it incrementally. We should lock in the right to hunt for hunters and outdoorsmen and ensure it won't be taken away." (For previous Monitor coverage about what's fueling concerns of gun rights advocates, click here.)

A 'solution in search of a problem'?

The National Rifle Association (NRA) sees the loss of hunting rights as a real threat. Critics, on the other hand, call it a manufactured "wedge" issue – like gay marriage and so-called partial-birth abortion – to bring out voters for conservative candidates in swing states.

"We haven't opposed these measures," says Michael Markarian of the Humane Society of the United States. "We don't really view them as having much of an impact. These proposals are a solution in search of a problem. Every state allows hunting." The amendments, he adds, play to people's emotions.

At the NRA, spokesman Andrew Arulanandam calls that a "bogus assertion." (For Monitor coverage of last year's NRA convention, click here.)

"We push [this] in state legislatures in election years and nonelection years," says Mr. Arulanandam. "Party affiliation is not an issue. This is a heritage issue." Certain groups, he asserts, are trying to "diligently dismantle" the right to hunt and to make hunting or fishing illegal.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) cries foul.

"The proposed amendment [in Arkansas] is frivolous and would clutter up the state's most important charter of government," says PETA spokeswoman Laura Lopez. "The amendment would ... open the door to a flood of other amendments whose sole purpose is to make political statements to benefit special-interest groups."

If Arkansas voters reject the amendment, she says, people will still be able to hunt and fish.

The case of Michigan's mourning doves

Hunting restrictions are already occurring, says the NRA, citing a recent case in Michigan.

The mourning dove, Michigan's state songbird, had been off limits to hunters since 1905, but in 2004, the state again allowed dove hunting. Two years later, voters rejected the shooting of mourning doves, after an intense campaign fueled on either side by millions of dollars from pro-gun and antihunting groups.

The NRA fears that bans will spread to larger game, such as deer and bear, and eventually lead sport hunting to be classified in the same category as cockfighting.

Hunters, moreover, are increasingly in the minority. In 2006, 12.5 million people hunted, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1995, the number was 15.3 million, and in 1970, 44 million. Still, hunting is a $20 billion-a-year industry that employs 300,000.

Smaller cities are joining the ban-hunting effort, says Stephen Halbrook, a Virginia lawyer and author of the book "The Founders' Second Amendment."

"There's an urbanization of life," he says. "People think meat comes from the grocery. Rural values are going by the wayside."

[Editor's note: The headline and subhead of this story were changed to account for the fact that three, not four, states have right-to-hunt initiatives on their November ballots. North Carolina legislators have yet to decide whether to ask for a constitutional amendment on the matter.]

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