It looks like Virginia is on the verge of stepping into the 21st century.
Barring any last-minute underhanded attempts by opponents, a 20-plus-year effort to overturn the state's ban on Sunday hunting appears to be drawing to a close. Bills that will allow hunting on Sundays on private land with written permission and on public waters sailed through the House and Senate in early February, clearing the way for Governor Terry McAuliffe to sign the legislation into law.
Supporters of the bill, including the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, argued the addition of Sundays might help reverse a long-term decline in hunting license sales. However, some proponents framed the argument as a property rights issue. A number of legislators who supported the bills latched onto that.
"That was an important part of the process. In many ways, this really is about private property rights. Government should not tell me I can't take part in an activity on Sunday that is legal the rest of the week. A lot of legislators agreed," according to Matt O'Brien, who launched a grassroots effort to overturn the ban through a Facebook page in 2010.
O'Brien's Facebook page has over 5,500 members and drew the attention of various pro-hunting lobby groups. O'Brien also served as the de facto voice for the cause. He was interviewed by a number of local and national media outlets.
"We also had some heavy-hitters patron bills. The senate bill patron is a Democrat. The House bill patron is a Republican," O'Brien said.
Efforts to overturn Virginia's Sunday hunting prohibition, the last of the state's "Blue Laws," were thwarted in recent years by four members of a seven-person House sub-committee.
Dubbed the "Sunday hunting death panel," the four — all Republicans — voted against a Sunday hunting bill every time it came up for consideration. This year, however, a procedural move helped the bill bypass that death panel, allowing it to go to a full committee vote. That move by Speaker Bill Howell (R-Stafford) proved to be the tipping point, O'Brien said.
"I don't think he is an advocate of Sunday hunting. I think he just got fed up with four men continuously killing legislation that had broad bipartisan support," he added.
The House bill passed the committee and then went to the full House, where it passed by a vote of 71-27. The Senate then passed their version of the same bill 29-10, also with bipartisan support.
"The fact that these bills had very strong bipartisan support, including a number of legislators from some very Democratic areas, was very important," O'Brien said.
Surprisingly, the strongest opposition came from a handful of rural Republicans, even though they all claimed to be hunters and private property rights advocates. Some even fell back on religion.
Delegate Tommy Wright (R-Lunenburg) said, "Sunday is the Lord's day, it's a day of worship, and hunting is not going to do a thing but continue to chip away at that day."
Wright didn't do his research. Of the ten states with the highest church attendance, nine allow hunting on Sunday.
Facts aside, opponents continued to fight the bills throughout the legislative process by adding an amendment that would have given individual counties the ability to vote for or against Sunday hunting within their borders. It would have created a hodgepodge of regulations difficult to enforce. That "local option" amendment was shot down, also by a large margin.
Despite the victory, some Virginia hunters will still be left out. It remains illegal to hunt on public land, including the state's 1.8 million acre George Washington and Jefferson National Forest, as well as 39 wildlife management areas purchased with license revenue.
The bill also prohibits the use of deer or bear hounds on Sundays. That was at the request of the Virginia Hunting Dog Alliance, which then lobbied unsuccessfully to defeat these Sunday hunting bills.
The private land-only wording was part of a compromise to appease hikers and horseback riders who feared getting shot, despite any evidence supporting their claims. Even with the public land exclusion, various lobby groups, including the Virginia Horse Council and the Virginia Farm Bureau, continued to oppose the bills. They are expected to survive any last-second challenges and Governor McAuliffe has stated he will sign it into law.
That's not just good news for Virginia hunters. O'Brien expects other states will see the victory as a test case of sorts.
"I believe there will be a domino effect. There needs to be a grass-roots effort in those other states like we had in Virginia, though," he said. "That really got the attention of groups like the NRA and the National Shooting Sports Foundation. Once they realized we had good momentum, they really got behind us on this."