Virginia considers lifting Sunday hunting ban as suburban priorities grow stronger


Andrew Kuhlman takes part in an annual dove hunt along with his dog, Phoenix, last year at the Shady Grove Kennel and Hunting Preserve in Remington, Va. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Thomas C. Wright Jr. and his family ran a small-town grocery store in Victoria, Va., for 40 years. He didn’t like it when the law changed to allow beer sales on Sundays, though he went along with it.

Now, Wright is facing another major intrusion into the Christian day of worship: His colleagues in the House of Delegates voted this week to allow hunting on Sundays.

Tuesday’s bipartisan House vote shook up political alliances and underscored Virginia’s continuing shift from rural to suburban sensibilities. And to Wright (R-Lunenburg), who represents a rural swath of Virginia that stretches to the North Carolina border, it was yet another sign that America is on the wrong track.

“We’re pushing God to the side,” said Wright, a longtime member of the National Rifle Association, an avid hunter and a reliable Republican gun rights supporter who nonetheless voted to keep the hunting ban in place.

“Now Sundays are like almost any other day of the week,” he said. “Has it really helped our culture? Has it really helped our morals? The more we chip away at Sunday being the Lord’s Day, the worse it is for our country.”

In the Virginia Senate, which has voted to lift the ban in the past, a committee is set to take up the measure Thursday. Many of Wright’s Republican House allies, and numerous Democrats from across the state, said it is time to change an antiquated law that makes it more difficult for busy Virginians to experience the joys of hunting.

Sundays have been so transformed, some supporters say, that excluding hunting seems an arbitrary and illogical throwback.

“Imagine if we were to ban NASCAR on Sunday. Imagine if we were to say, ‘Whoops, no golf!’ And imagine if we said, ‘No football on Sunday afternoon,’ ” said Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William). “I think the tectonic plates would shift! This is just another form of recreation.”

A long-standing Virginia law declares Sunday “a rest day for all species of wild bird and wild animal life, except raccoons, which may be hunted until 2:00 a.m. on Sunday mornings.”

Under the pending legislation — which deletes the reference to a “rest day” for God’s creatures — hunters could kill wild animals such as deer and bear, though only on private property with a landowner’s written permission. They could also shoot ducks and other waterfowl on private land and over public waters, such as Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River, but the state’s top game official would be permitted to carve out exceptions, prohibiting waterfowl hunting, for instance, near a particular subdivision.

The bill could boost tourism and help draw in younger hunters, Lingamfelter and other supporters have said. The vast majority of states allow hunting on Sundays, and conservative Southern states have shown they can do so without negative consequences for the community, he said. “If you look at . . . the Bible Belt, they have had Sunday hunting for the longest time in the world, and they’ve managed to make it work,” he said.

The House vote was 71 to 27, and the divide, to some extent, was shaped by geography, with delegates from relatively urban and suburban areas tending to support the bill and some of those from relatively conservative rural areas balking despite a deep-rooted hunting culture.

Del. Mark D. Sickles (D-Fairfax) said he saw some irony in suburban legislators’ support for an activity associated with Virginia’s more rural reaches. But his Northern Virginia constituents, by virtue of where they live, have to travel farther to hunt, he said, and an extra weekend day could help make more such trips possible.

“Many of my constituents called me and asked for it. . . . They need two days,” Sickles said. Moreover, given the diversity of Fairfax County, Virginia’s most populous jurisdiction, Sunday has a different meaning in different communities.

“We have people of multiple faiths,” Sickles said. “Sunday is not particularly their day of worship. We have a large Jewish population. Maybe they worship on Saturday and would like to hunt on Sunday.”

Some suburban delegates did oppose the change. They included Del. Patrick A. Hope (D-Arlington), who said he had heard from residents, including bird-watchers, who hope to preserve peaceful Sunday strolls.

“People who go on nature walks, they don’t want to hear gunshots. They don’t want to be worried about gunshots,” Hope said. “Birds react to gunfire.”

Wilmer Stoneman, an advocate with the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, which supports the Sunday ban, said that fewer than 3 percent of Virginians hunt, so a tiny minority would end up detracting from the quality of life of everyone else, including hikers, bicyclists and horseback riders.

Virginia’s ban on Sunday hunting already makes an exception for shooting on private, state-licensed preserves.

“They’re privately run, mostly for profit,” said Meade Spotts, an attorney for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which is pushing to end the ban. The pending legislation would “finally allow the common man to do what the wealthy have been allowed to do for decades.”

Del. C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), the bill’s chief patron, said boosting Virginia’s hunting population is a key goal, as is culling the burgeoning deer population, which is blamed for crop damage and dangerous collisions between deer and cars. He also said allowing Virginia’s centuries-old hunting heritage to flourish every day of the week is ultimately a matter of property rights.

“If people don’t want this activity on their private property, they certainly don’t have to engage in it,” Gilbert said.

The House and Senate bills also would prohibit hunting within 200 yards of a place of worship on Sundays. Wright said that’s a weak gesture, practically and spiritually.

When landowners are at church, “trespassers are going to know they’re not home,” Wright said. More importantly, Virginia is following relatively liberal states to a place he doesn’t want to go.

“It just shows that Virginia is moving in the direction the nation is,” he said, and threatening traditional rural values and a way of life.

You don’t have to worry about crime. You have good taxes. It’s a good place to raise a family,” Wright said of rural Virginia. “We really have a wonderful quality of life, and this Sunday hunting’s not going to help.”

Mike Laris came to Post by way of Los Angeles and Beijing. He’s written about the world’s greatest holstein bull, earth’s biggest pork producer, home builders, the homeless, steel workers and Italian tumors.
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