Right to hunt

You have a right to free speech and a right to bear arms, but the NRA wants to add another amendment to every American's bill of rights: A right to hunt.

After winning big in 2008 with the passage of a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to "hunt, trap, fish and take game" in Oklahoma, the National Rifle Association says it wants to launch similar campaigns in a number of states in the South and Midwest.

In Arkansas, a constitutional amendment modeled off of Oklahoma's will go before state voters in 2010. Rachel Parsons, a spokesman for the NRA, said if that succeeds, similar efforts could be launched in other states, including North and South Carolina.

"It's one of the NRA's top hunting priorities," Parsons said.

Ten states have a right to hunt embedded in their state constitutions. The oldest — Vermont's — dates back to 1777. Most of the other nine have adopted similar amendments in the past decade. But, according to the National Rifle Association, the continued interest in making hunting a right in the 21st Century is thanks to a thoroughly modern problem: Efforts by "anti-hunting" groups who would rather ban the sport all together.

Some of those groups, including the Humane Society of the United States, dispute the claim. They say they only oppose "inhumane" sporting practices, and that they aren't working to ban hunting outright.

"We have policy disagreements on most of these issues with the NRA, but we don't with most rank-and-file hunters," said Andrew Page, a spokesman for the humane society.

Some of the push for pro-hunting amendments can be attributed to the decline of rural populations, as more and more American move to cities. Supporters of the amendments worry that support for hunting will decline as America becomes a more urban society, said Steve Faris, a state senator in Arkansas and the sponsor of that state's amendment.

"I just feel that someday, as we move from a more rural country to a more urban one, that the right to hunt and fish as we have known it in the past could be jeopardized," Faris said. "I think it's important to put something in place to make it clear that hunting and fishing in Arkansas is a right, not a privilege."

The push for constitutional protection comes at a time of concern for many sportsmen and gun owners. President Barack Obama has expressed support for a ban on assault weapons that expired in 1994, leading to fears that he will push for it to be reinforced. Some markets have suffered shortages of ammunition that have been blamed on gun owners trying to stock up before such a ban takes effect. The NRA's Parsons said she knows of no effort by the Obama Administration to restrict hunting. But she added "We hear a lot of folks who say that they do feel threatened and the second amendment is threatened by the Obama Administration."

The NRA claims the Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, are "anti hunting." According to an NRA statement released earlier this year, "Hunting and trapping (as well as fishing) have been targeted for extinction by the well-funded animal "rights" extremists at HSUS and PETA, but NRA is laying the groundwork of our defense against future attacks through constitutional amendments ... While many may believe hunting is already protected from emotional, politically-motivated attacks, in most states, it is not."

Spokesmen for both the Humane Society and PETA said their respective organizations are not currently working to ban all types of hunting. They described right-to-hunt amendments instead as a political power play meant more to raise support for the NRA than defend hunting.

Constitutional amendments supporting a right to hunt are "just a solution in search of a problem," said Nicole Matthews, a spokesman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "If it is rejected, voters will continue to hunt and fish as they do now."

But that doesn't mean PETA wouldn't mind seeing an end to hunting. Matthews described hunting as a "blood sport" and said "hunting is now nothing more than a violent form of recreation that the vast majority of hunters do not need for subsistence."

The Humane Society's Page said his organization is against some forms of hunting, such as hunting animals in an enclosed area or using bait in the hunting of bears. "Most rank and file hunters find these practices unacceptable," Page said.

In addition to Vermont, nine other states have right-to-hunt amendments on their state constitutions. They are:

  • Alabama, where voters in 1996 approved a "Sportsperson's Bill of Rights" that stated "all persons shall have the right to hunt and fish in this state in accordance with law and regulations."

  • Georgia, where in 2006, voters approved an amendment stating "The tradition of fishing and hunting and the taking of fish and wildlife shall be reserved for the people and shall be managed by law and regulation for the public good."

  • Louisiana, where voters in 2004 approved an amendment stating "The freedom to hunt, fish, and trap wildlife, including all aquatic life, traditionally taken by hunters, trappers and anglers, is a valued natural heritage that shall be forever preserved for the people."

  • Minnesota, where voters in 1998 approved an amendment stating "Hunting and fishing and the taking of game and fish are a valued part of our heritage that shall be forever preserved for the people and shall be managed by law and regulation for the public good."

  • Montana, where voters in 2004 amended the state constitution in part to read "the opportunity to harvest wild fish and wild game animals is a heritage that shall forever be preserved to the individual citizens of the state."

  • North Dakota's constitution reads in part "Hunting, trapping, and fishing and the taking of game and fish are a valued part of our heritage and will be forever preserved for the people and managed by law and regulation for the public good." That amendment was adopted in 2000.

  • Virginia's voters approved an amendment in 2000 that states "the people have a right to hunt, fish, and harvest game, subject to such regulations and restrictions as the General Assembly may prescribe by general law."

  • In 2003, voters in Wisconsin approved an amendment that states "The people have the right to fish, hunt, trap, and take game subject only to reasonable restrictions as prescribed by law."

  • Oklahoma's amendment gave all people the right to "hunt, trap fish and take game and fish." The amendment passed with 80 percent of the vote.

A number of other states, including Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico and Texas have considered similar amendments without approving them.

The amendment on the ballot in Arkansas would bestow similar rights, and states that "public hunting, fishing, and trapping shall be a preferred means of managing and controlling nonthreatened species and citizens may use traditional methods for harvesting wildlife."

Faris sponsored another right-to-hunt amendment in 2006 but the effort failed to receive the approval of the state legislature. Faris blamed the defeat on legal concerns, and said he was confident this latest version would pass the voters in 2010.

But he cautioned: "You never know until the people speak how they feel on an issue like this."