‘Sunday hunting’ bill about more than hunting

Published 3:20 pm Sunday, April 26, 2015

Two bills, one in the N.C. House and one in the Senate, have brought up a hot issue, one that would rid the state of one of few remaining blue laws in North Carolina.

If passed, the bills would change existing law that bans hunting with firearms on Sundays — but only on private lands. North Carolina is one of 11 states that currently ban or restrict hunting on Sundays. The others are Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia. During the 2014 legislative session, however, both Virginia and Maryland legislatures loosened their states’ restrictions to allow hunting on private land. South Carolina only has restrictions regarding hunting on Wildlife Management Area lands.

Now it’s North Carolina’s turn to address the issue and, according to county officials, the manner by which information about the bills was delivered led to the local Board of Commissioners first passing a resolution, 6-1, to exempt Beaufort County from the legislation, then reversing that decision, 4-3, in a poll by County Clerk Katie Mosher.

“I think one of the problems that’s going around is that there are two version of the bill,” said interim Beaufort County Manager Ken Windley. “The information we received was based on the Senate bill and I think what’s going end up being approved is based on a House bill.”

There are vast differences between the two bills. The Senate bill only addresses hunting on private land on Sunday — property owners would be allowed to hunt on their own land and all others would be required to get written permission from the landowner. The House bill addresses much more.

House Bill 640, the “Outdoor Heritage Act,” first calls for the establishment of trust fund intended to give children 16 and under more outdoor recreational opportunities. The Trust Fund for Youth Outdoor Heritage Promotion would be funded with an optional check-off donation box, limited to a donation of $2, when people fill out paperwork for hunting and fishing licenses. The bill also calls for the formation of a council to oversee the trust fund.

The House bill includes more protections for landowners. According to Cameron Boltes, an advocate for the bill, hunters who trespass on private land while hunting currently are given a “slap on the wrist” and a $25 fine. That would change under the new legislation’s “three strikes” rule: any hunter caught trespassing three times would lose his or her hunting license for two years. For landowners who give hunters permission to retrieve dogs on their land, the bill includes a measure that exempts landowners from civil liability — an action meant to encourage better relations between property owners and hunters, according to the bill.

In addition to measures calling for all Wildlife Resources Commission officers to wear body cameras when executing warrants and redefines the weight of cub bears from less than 50 pounds to less than 75 pounds — done to prevent hunters from taking spring-born bears in the same year — the bill would allow for seven-day hunting.

However, there would be restrictions: no hunting of migratory waterfowl; no chasing deer with dogs; no hunting within 300 yards of a place of worship.

But for some local commissioners, hunting on Sundays with firearms should not be permitted at all.

“I just think it’s a day of rest. The Sabbath is a sacred day — that’s just the way I grew up,” said Beaufort County Board of Commissioners Board Chair Gary Brinn, in an earlier interview. “If you can’t do it in six days, there’s no need to do it in seven.”

But advocates like Boltes say there’s more at stake than a day of rest, and argue that target shooting, skeet shooting, fishing and hunting with bow and arrow are all legal in North Carolina — the shooting producing the same amount of noise as hunting with firearms; fishing and hunting with bow and arrow already don’t abide with the day of rest as prescribed by the Sabbath. The state is actually losing out on an economic windfall, Boltes said, as out-of-state hunters choose to purchase licenses in surrounding states because a weekend hunting trip means only one full day of hunting in North Carolina. And for hunters like Boltes who work six days a week, he has only Saturdays to take his three children hunting, and Saturdays are most often wrapped up in sports games. For working parents who want to teach their children to appreciate more than iPads, TV and other devices, the new legislation would allow for that quality time, he said.

Because of the religious aspect of the proposed law change — the language of the resolution to not support Sunday hunting is steeped in Biblical reference — the House legislation gives counties the opportunity to opt out of “Sunday hunting” and many eastern North Carolina counties’ boards of commissioners have done exactly that, but based on the wording of the Senate bill only, though it is the House bill that is expect to be the actual bill voted into law, Boltes said.  During the April Beaufort County commissioners’ meeting, the Senate bill-based resolution was added to the consent agenda and voted through with no discussion.

“We were given a version of the Senate bill. We didn’t even know there was a House bill,” Windley said. “I wish the powers that be would send out complete information.”

Windley said the information regarding the resolution came from the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government — a notification of what issues and/or resolutions were trending in surrounding counties.

“It was put on the consent agenda as just ‘Sunday hunting’ without anybody knowing what it was,” said Commissioner Hood Richardson. “Nothing was said to the board as a whole, but that doesn’t meant that some commissioners in the room didn’t know what it was about. … It was never discussed and that’s the whole purpose of putting it on the consent agenda — ‘We don’t want to talk about this.’”

Richardson said the “Sunday hunting” issue was case in point of how the consent agenda was being misused, which is why he consistently votes against motions to approve it.

“I’m against Sunday hunting from a religious standpoint, but I’m not against it if it’s your own property,” Richardson said. “I think putting some more teeth into the trespass law is a good thing. It’s something that a lot of property owners have talked to me about, that it is abused.”

When county officials realized the commissioners’ vote was based on a lack of information, Mosher polled each commissioner as to how each stood on the issue, and received a 4-3 vote in favor of the “Outdoor Heritage Act.” According to Boltes, Commissioners Ed Booth, Ron Buzzeo, Richardson and Frankie Waters polled in favor; Commissioners Robert Belcher, Brinn and Jerry Langley, against. While the official vote taken in the April meeting will stand until the next meeting, the favorable position has been passed along to legislators representing Beaufort County in the General Assembly.