It’s been a long and winding road for outdoorsmen and women in Virginia and South Carolina but hunting advocates have reason for cautious optimism.
Hunting has experienced a renaissance over the past two years as millions of Americans have taken to the great outdoors. Hunters, and not just those with access to private lands, in the Old Dominion and the Palmetto State are closely monitoring bills that could allow the public to hunt on each state’s vast public lands.
Prior to 2014, hunting on Sundays in Virginia wasn’t even allowed. The reasons for the ban varied but that changed after the state legislature passed a bill expanding hunting opportunities on Sundays – but only on private lands and only if the hunter had written permission from the landowner. Virginia’s more than 1.6 million acres of national forest lands and 70,000 acres of state forests remained off limits for public hunting. They still do.
Democratic Virginia state Sen. Chap Petersen introduced his legislation this session to fully expand hunting in Virginia on Sundays to both public and private lands this year after several years of contentious debate on both sides of the issue. The reasoning is straightforward and simple. According to the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources Board, many hunters, including beginners and novices, are only able to hunt on weekends and don’t have access to private lands. Nearly 40 percent of hunters use public lands and they are blocked out from Sundays, losing half their hunting season.
Prior to the start of the 2022 legislative session, momentum for expanded Sunday hunting in Virginia was growing. In November of 2021, the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources Board backed the expansion and unanimously passed a resolution supporting public, as well as private, Sunday hunting. The board’s approval greased the skids for Senate approval late last month and now adoption of the expansion is being considered in the Virginia House of Delegates.
“We’ve had Sunday hunting for the last eight years and I think it’s fair to say that civilization hasn’t come to an end,” Sen. Petersen said in a floor speech prior to a vote on his bill. “This is just an access issue. I know that some people don’t like Sunday hunting. I understand that. I’m not going to try to change their views but I do believe that for those people who believe in outdoor recreation and you only get two days on a weekend and this is one of them.”
Virginia remains only one of five states in the country that maintains Sunday hunting prohibitions. Republican Virginia state Delegate James Edmunds is hoping to change that through his Sunday hunting expansion bill in the lower chamber. Delegate Edmunds’ bill received a House Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee hearing on the first day of the 2021 Virginia legislative session but it failed to move out of committee.
Delegate Edmunds voiced his disappointment saying, “Hunters contribute the most to the purchase of many public lands but are the only user groups not allowed to use it.”
He also said opposition is likely more related to Second Amendment and shooting sports opposition than to anything else.
“I think it is very hypocritical. I really believe that many of those who voted against it voted against hunting more than they voted against Sunday hunting.”
Following his bill’s defeat, though, Delegate Edmunds vowed to try again in the 2022 legislative session and re-introduced his hunting expansion bill. The bill received a hearing in the House Subcommittee on Natural Resources but failed again to advance, but only after a tied 3-3 vote. The tie means the bill can still be altered for reconsideration. However, the House of Delegates can still take up, debate and vote on the already-passed Senate bill sponsored by Sen. Petersen. The Sunday hunting bill faces a March legislative deadline in order for passage to remain possible.
In South Carolina, Republican state Rep. Bobby Cox introduced H. 4614, which would open state-owned wildlife management areas for hunting on Sundays. In a bit of good news, the bill received a favorable 4-0 vote in the House Wildlife Subcommittee and now moves for consideration in the full House Committee on Agriculture, Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs. There is still much work ahead to advance the bill with favorable votes.
The moves to expand hunting opportunities in Virginia and South Carolina come at the right time. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, NSSF retailer survey data showed millions of Americans sought to join the ranks of American hunters and enjoy some social distancing in the fields and woods. Firearm sales reached record highs two years ago and last year, and that included nearly 14 million first-time gun buyers. Purchasers said self-defense was a driving force behind their purchases but hunting and recreational shooting were near the top.
In the Commonwealth, more than 800,000 Virginians submitted an FBI National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) verification to buy a gun in 2020. In 2021, the number was more than 650,000. For South Carolina, those numbers were 485,000 and 531,000, respectively.
When hunters and recreational shooters purchase licenses, hunting permits and firearm and ammunition equipment, they support manufacturers who pay Pittman-Robertson excise taxes that fund wildlife and habitat conservation projects and public lands management in the states. Since 1937, that funding has totaled more than $14.7 billion and it’s rising still.
Sunday hunting for all, on private lands and state-operated public ones too, would ensure millions of Virginians and South Carolinians could finally take advantage of millions of acres of beautiful and bountiful public lands to enjoy hunting.
Larry Keane is the senior vice-president for government and public affairs, assistant secretary and general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation.