It started in 1990 with a single breach barrel New England Firearm shotgun that probably cost me about $80. It was all I could afford at the time. I was a starving college student, my roommate was a hunter and hunting was something I wanted to learn how to do.
Twenty years later, in 2009, I had the worst hunting season of my life. I’m a husband, father of four, a desk jockey in my civilian job and an Army Reservist ROTC Instructor at Old Dominion University.
I had purchased an archery license, a muzzleloader license, a hunting license and big game tags. I had been a member of a hunting club for the last six years on the eastern shore of Virginia.
The camper was set up in a campground for the winter, ready to be used as our basecamp. It was a 2 ½-hour drive to my hunting grounds…and I loved it. It was my respite from the daily grind, but I couldn’t get there.
Time after time there was always a reason that stood between me and the woods. A wedding, a funeral, a trip to visit family, somebody needed help moving, Army duty multiple times per month and the demands of my regular job prevented me from hunting that season. That season consisted of four days in the woods over a three month stretch.
As the father of four young ones, I could see the writing on the wall. I had thoughts like, “Which one or two of my kids aren’t going to be hunters” and “Maybe I can focus on just one and the bug will set in on her, she keeps asking to go.”
Then, a glimmer of hope. I could recall a bill in a previous General Assembly in Virginia that was designed to lift the restrictions on Sunday hunting. That would help! I could easily see that more time afield when I wasn’t working would be the answer. Surely there were thousands of other hunters in my same position.
Almost every hunter I knew was fighting the same battle. I thought maybe if I joined an organization that was fighting for my access to the woods, I could help. A quick search found that not only were there no hunting organizations fighting for it, there were some that were fighting against it!
How can this be? Why would any fellow hunter try to keep me out of the woods?
The Republicans, yes, that would be the answer, I thought. Hunters are generally less intrusive in their ideals about government, the Second Amendment and guns. Surely Republicans would be the ones to take up the “hunter access to the woods” banner.
Nope. The Virginia hunter’s primary opposition turned out to be the Republicans in the House of Delegates. I was feeling powerless and frustrated; I wanted to change that. As silly as it sounds, I created a Facebook page to publicly vent and see if others were as frustrated as I was.
It started out slow at first. In 2010 I bet there were only 100 people that had joined the group. That all changed in 2011. I started to write letters to the editors and realized that the word needed to spread that a movement was afoot. I did a radio show interview here, a news article there and interjected comments on blogs and online news pieces.
Redd Branson, a fellow hunter who I think was about the 50th person to join the group, had a fire in his belly too. It didn’t hurt that he was in the U.S. Army as well. He figuratively—and literally—put his money where his mouth was when he rented a booth at the Virginia Outdoor Sportman’s show.
The response was overwhelming. I was stunned to hear for the first time things like, “I heard you on the radio and wanted to come to the show and shake your hand and meet the man who was fighting for hunters.”
At that point we were still naive enough to believe that all we had to do was show the politicians that the public support was there. They didn’t believe the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries, which said we need to lift the Sunday hunting restrictions.
They wouldn’t listen to scientific polls, they wouldn’t read the declining Virginia hunting population studies with the No. 1 complaint being about limited time to access the woods. Surely, we thought, if we had a petition they couldn’t ignore that. It is the people’s voice, right?
Wrong again. It wasn’t public opinion. A few albeit powerful people in the House Republican leadership were fighting it. It was their sense of holding to some relic of a past that dated back to the King of England.
And so there were speeches and writings talking about how much better things were a hundred years ago. It was about some sense of communal living that, to me, borders on a socialist dream world. They weren’t talking about trust and faith in the rugged competent individual citizen. It seemed like they were saying, “Sit down, shut up and take what we give you.”
I’m getting older now and I can see how thoughts of the good old days often creep into my head. I remember when things were good and right but now see what a mess it’s become. As I move further away from 1971, my birth year, I am trying to stay focused on the one thing that has been constant in society—change.
I bet the first old caveman that stepped out of his cave into a dwelling probably looked back wistfully and said, “Remember when we were living in caves? Things were so much better back then.”
In 2012 and 2013 we ran up against the forces who were looking back wistfully at their cave living. We would make it out of the Senate with Sunday hunting bills only to die in a obscure, small seven-person subcommittee that was seemingly crafted and designed to be staffed by representatives who would kill Sunday hunting.
They became known in hunting circles as “The Sunday Hunting Death Committee,” presided over by Delegate Lee Ware and his cabal fueled by the Virginia Farm Bureau.
Over the years we had won over all of the Virginia hunting groups with the exception of one, the Virginia Hunting Dog Alliance. Their leadership decided to hold fast, publicly stating that they would never support hunting on Sunday. Even with their over-inflated claim to represent 60,000 hound hunters, the hunting community knew that hound hunters wanted to hunt on Sunday, too. Little-by-little we won over the hunting community.
I will never forget the first time I personally heard the opposition’s argument in the Senate AG Committee. I actually asked myself, “This anti-Sunday hunting argument has worked against us for 20 years?” I got the sense that the reason it worked was because there was never any concerted effort to fight against it.
The Facebook group, Legalize Virginia Sunday Hunting for All, began to take on a life of its own. No longer did I have to search for articles about Sunday hunting to comment on and ensure the pro-Sunday hunting message would be represented. By the time I got to the article, there would be five comments saying all people wanted to do was participate in the only activity left in the state that was legal six days of the week but banned on the seventh.
Hunters manned information booths and collected emails across the state; we got the word out that an effort was in progress. The grass roots had taken hold.
Our focus in the run-up to the 2014 General Assembly was on applying pressure to the Republican leadership in the House to get involved and do the right thing. In our strategy sessions we came to realize that it would take the right compromise bill, as opposed to an outright lifting of all the restrictions. In the years prior there were numerous bills submitted by many patrons.
For 2014 we tried our best to ask the legislators to sign on to one compromise bill. That bill was “private property only” because almost all the rational arguments can be stripped away with that one compromise. You don’t want Sunday hunting? Then don’t allow it on your property. Want to hike, bike, or ride your horse on public land? Have at it, just stay off my property because you are a trespasser.
We aren’t a communist country or state. An adequate view of private property should allow us to choose to participate in a legal activity on our own land as we see fit. Our rallying cry was this: “If you don’t want to hunt on Sunday then don’t. I fully support your freedom to choose to not hunt on Sunday.”
Throughout the effort there was a team of lobbyists backed by the NRA and the NSSF that worked their magic in the halls of the General Assembly. I don’t pretend to say that our push moved the mountains. The professionals did the real work that I wouldn’t even begin to understand with complex political strategies.
Their names aren’t known because it’s the lobbyist’s way. I know the hours they worked and the time they spent pushing this thing through. It was not because we had money on our side—Lord knows we probably didn’t have a thousandth as much as our opposition said we did—but ultimately it was because people believe our message: If we want to raise future hunters, we need a full weekend to do it.
There have been many key players over the years, in fact too many to name. Daren, Jesse, Jerry, Chris, Kirk, Alex and the thousands of others, I tip my blaze orange hat to you. I tell my fellow hunters if you are looking for some place to say thank you with your wallet, it is in a membership in the NRA or the NSSF.
As of this writing it isn’t quite over, but it’s about to be. We had a crushing victory in the House (71 for, 27 against) and a solid win in the Senate. Now only the Governor’s signature looms before us.
However, we are riding on a House victory that makes it very clear to everyone that the strangle hold a few had over Sunday hunting should have been released many years ago. Once the democratic process was allowed to work, the will of the people was clear. We always knew it. It just took one man to create a page and have a fire in his belly with which to give thousands of others a place to gather and show their support.
I look forward to hunting with my grand kids someday, and while sitting in the woods on a Sunday hunt I might even recollect the days when we couldn’t do this. —Matt O’Brien
Matt O’Brien, from Zuni, Va., is a grassroots activist in the Virginia hunting community. His involvement began with the effort to increase hunter access to the woods. As a retired Army Reservist with a full-time civilian job and a Regional Safety Health & Environmental Manager in heavy manufacturing, O’Brien personally saw the dilemma and the opportunity in Sunday hunting to reverse the decades long decline in youth and overall hunter participation/retention in the state.