It’s not just deer season this that has hunters excited this fall. This election season sportsmen are being drawn to the polls by one of the quietest campaigns this year.
Voters in four states, including Tennessee, will decide if hunting and fishing are just a privilege or more than that, a constitutional right.
Retirees Charles Dukes and Roy Duncan spend most afternoons tromping around this wooded archery range in Hermitage, nocking arrows and taking aim at deer and turkeys made out of hay bales.
“Problem with getting older, you get shakier and shakier,” Dukes says as his arrow misses the kill-area of the target.
“’Bout over where you usually are, aren’t you Charles?” Duncan asks jokingly.
These two aging sportsmen have been around long enough to watch hunting decline in popularity. That’s one of the issues prompting hunters to seek constitutional protection.
Hunting Declines Nationwide
Less than half a million people in Tennessee have hunting and fishing licenses, a figure that’s declined nearly 10% from its high point a decade ago. And as fewer people spend their weekends stalking bucks and sitting in duck blinds, Dukes says the remnant hunters and fishermen have to be more proactive. He’s already witnessed how changing demographics have altered the way society views weapons.
“When I grew up, people didn’t think much about a person who had a gun and now they practically call out the SWAT team,” Dukes says. “It seems like the more urbanized America becomes, the more prevalent that attitude becomes too.”
The National Rifle Association is behind the coast-to-coast push for pro-hunting amendments.
But the argument for constitutional protection is about more than people moving off the farm and forgetting their firearms. Outdoorsmen feel animal rights organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have made some inroads in places like California. PETA has argued hunting for sport is cruel and unnecessary.
“The hunters and fishermen in Tennessee want to make a statement,” says Tony Dolle, spokesman for Memphis-based Ducks Unlimited. “I think this is a good way to do that, not only to ensure our abilities and rights to hunt and fish, but the hunting heritage is continued forever.”
Hunters Support, So Do Lawmakers
The lone no-vote when the Tennessee Legislature approved putting the constitutional amendment on the ballot came from Memphis Democrat Johnnie Turner.
“We don’t have a problem. It’s almost, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” she said.
Even Turner made sure to say she has nothing against hunting or fishing. After all, they’re a $2.4 billion industry in the state.
Legal experts like Peter Appel also get the feeling, though, pro-hunting amendments are a solution in search of a problem.
Amendments Give More Weight to Hunters
Appel’s a law professor at the University of Georgia, which is one of the ten states that already has the right to hunt in its constitution. He says the amendments themselves could become the problem, as hunters gain more legal standing to question hunting and fishing regulations.
“To the extent that it gives people more of an opportunity to go into court and to second guess what their legislature or their executive branch is doing, again, when there doesn’t seem to be a really big problem, as far as I can tell, I don’t think that it’s a wise exercise of amending the constitution,” Appel says.
In Appel’s view, constitutional amendments should be reserved for civil rights and religious freedom. Groups like PETA make the same point but more sarcastically, asking “are we also going to protect shopping and golf?”
Some Still Hunt for Sustinance
True, hunting is now more about recreation and less about putting food on the table. But Kenny Parker, who is unemployed, says hunting isn’t solely for sport.
“Things are tight, bro, things are tight,” he says as he works to sight in his crossbow. “So yeah, I’m trying to make sure I have meat for the winter.”
Parker says he doesn’t always vote, but he’ll make it to the polls November 2nd, if only to vote “yes” and add his right to hunt to the state’s founding document.
In order to be ratified, an amendment to the state constitution must get at least half as many votes as are cast in the governor’s race. That means voting for the top of the ticket and skipping the hunting amendment has the same effect as voting “no.”
If voters approve, the following clause would be added to the constitution immediately in Article XI, Section 13:
“The citizens of this state shall have the personal right to hunt and fish, subject to reasonable regulations and restrictions prescribed by law. The recognition of this right does not abrogate any private or public property rights, nor does it limit the state’s power to regulate commercial activity. Traditional manners and means may be used to take non-threatened species.”
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