With plans for the House of Delegates to meet virtually amid the COVID-19 pandemic and still-fresh Democratic majorities, little about the 2021 General Assembly session may look familiar. Even the normal bickering over menhaden has been silenced after last year’s legislature brought the long-running fishery fight to a close.
But never fear: Lawmakers still have the debate over Sunday hunting, an issue once compared to “a cat with nine lives,” as a touchstone of tradition.
This year, as they have for decades, legislators will again take up the question of whether Virginia should still be prohibiting hunting on Sunday in any capacity.
“It’s really only fair” to start allowing hunting on public lands on Sundays, said Del. James Edmunds, R-Halifax. “To deny the hunters the use of that land when they paid for a lot of it doesn’t seem right.”
Edmunds’ proposal, House Bill 1799, is his second swing at lifting a ban that has been in place in one form or another (with exceptions for raccoons and waterfowl) since 1643, when it was passed by the House of Burgesses, the forerunner of today’s House of Delegates.
Throughout the second half of the 20th century, legislators repeatedly sought to lift or weaken the restriction. One particularly dedicated Virginia Beach taxidermist named Joe Ficarra tried to create a legal test case by going hunting on Sunday and notifying a game warden of his plans, but the proceedings never went beyond the circuit court level.
In 2014, opponents of the ban won a partial victory when the General Assembly passed a law allowing Sunday hunting on private land in the commonwealth. Public lands, though, including Virginia’s vast wildlife management areas, remained off limits.
Over the years many of the arguments for and against the practice have remained the same.
On the anti-Sunday hunting side, they range from religious prohibitions against certain activities on the Christian sabbath to the conservationist belief that populations benefit from a weekly day of rest to the pleadings of non-hunters that they deserve a day of the week to enjoy nature without fear of bullets.
Pro-Sunday hunting supporters, meanwhile, say that Virginia is one of a minority of states to still have such a prohibition on its books, that accidental shootings due to hunting are infrequent and that private religious convictions should not determine public policy.
“My religious beliefs should not impede your wish to go out and hunt on Sunday if you choose to do so,” said Cyrus Baird of Safari Club International, one group lobbying for Sunday hunting to be allowed. “That’s not how we manage wildlife in this country.”
Increasingly proponents are also arguing to do away with the ban on the grounds that it deprives hunters — whose hunting licenses help fund the Department of Wildlife Resources’ budget and establish and maintain wildlife management areas — of equal access to public lands. Furthermore, they say, opening up Sundays to hunting could lead to more people buying licenses and increasing DWR revenues.
“Just (allowing hunting) on private land disenfranchises a certain portion of our populace,” said Del. Tony Wilt, R-Rockingham, during a House committee debate on Edmunds’ proposal in 2020. “There’s folks out there who work six days a week … so Sunday is the only time they have to go. And there’s a lot of folks out there who don’t have access to private land.”
Del. David Bulova, D-Fairfax, however, cast the debate as a matter of how lawmakers should “manage and balance competing uses of public land.”
“This is an opportunity for our hikers, our bikers, people who want to camp, to be able to go ahead and use those public lands once a week without having to worry about those conflicting uses,” he told the committee last January before it voted to strike down the bill.
Edmunds took a skeptical view of that stance, telling the Mercury that “statistics absolutely do not support the fact that those two are going to be conflicting.”
Hunting is only allowed during certain times of the year in Virginia, he said, and in his view birdwatchers and hikers can coexist with hunters on public lands without problems.
“Hunters don’t want to be where people are walking around,” he said. “They go to places that are remote.”
Revenue impacts of the legislation remain murky. A 2011 economic analysis by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which has advocated for the removal of Sunday hunting bans, calculated Virginia could see $296 million in impacts and add nearly 4,000 jobs to the state economy.
Expanding hunting to Sunday could also require the hiring of more staff at the Department of Wildlife Resources and additional Sunday shifts, but those impacts are expected to be “minimal,” according to a financial impact analysis conducted by the department in 2014.
“We do know that lack of opportunity is one of the primary reasons cited by those who do not go hunting, so conceivably anything that increases opportunity has the potential to positively affect license sales,” wrote DWR Director of Planning and Finance Darin Moore in an email to the Mercury. But, he added, “it also would be very difficult to definitively show a correlation between Sunday hunting opportunity on public lands and license sales.”