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Lawmakers to consider ending longtime Sunday hunting ban

Email|Print| Text size + By David Abel
Globe Staff / November 7, 2007

Jim Wallace likes nothing more than a day out in the woods, listening to the birds, scanning the tree line for pheasants or grouse, and taking aim with his 20-gauge shotgun.

But with all the meetings and programs he runs as the director of a nonprofit organization, he has little time to fire his Ruger. Making it harder is a law more than a century older than the United States that prohibits him from hunting on Sundays, often the only time he has available.

The ban is one of the last of the blue laws - the same code that outlaws frightening pigeons from another person's property, exhibiting albinos for profit, and kissing in public - and one of the few actually enforced.

Lawmakers on Beacon Hill will consider a bill today that would repeal the hunting ban, sending it the way of the Sunday ban on alcohol sales and other Puritan-era laws.

"It's discrimination, pure and simple," said Wallace, of Newburyport, executive director of the Gun Owner's Action League of Massachusetts. "Why is it that hunters are the only ones who can't enjoy their sport on Sundays in Massachusetts?"

Opponents of the bill argue hunting is allowed every other day; hikers and other nature buffs, they say, should be allowed one day a week to walk trails without worrying about getting shot.

"Only 1 percent of Massachusetts residents are hunters, and six days of the week are open to hunters," said Kara Holmquist, director of advocacy for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, who plans to testify at today's hearing. "We think it's fair to keep this one day for people to enjoy the outdoors."

Massachusetts is one of seven states where hunting is banned on Sundays. The others are Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, according to the National Rifle Association.

The NRA says four other states limit Sunday hunting: Maryland allows hunting on two Sundays during deer season; South Carolina allows Sunday hunting on private land; North Carolina allows Sunday hunting at some federal installations; and West Virginia allows counties to authorize Sunday hunting on private land by referendum.

In a policy paper on its website titled "The Truth About Sunday Hunting: Why Hunters Shouldn't Be Treated as Second-Class Citizens," the NRA contends the ban on Sunday hunting has created an obstacle to increasing its ranks.

"By restricting Sunday hunting, states are not only limiting opportunities for today's hunters, but are making it harder to recruit new hunters to carry on our proud heritage," the NRA argues in the paper. "Anti-hunting groups understand this; that's why they oppose lifting Sunday hunting bans - they don't want a new generation of hunters to enter the field."

The decline in the number of hunters is one of the reasons state Representative Anne Gobi, a Spencer Democrat, cites for sponsoring the repeal of the Sunday ban.

In fiscal 1996, the state issued 98,179 hunting licenses; in fiscal 2005, the number declined to 70,207, said Lisa Capone, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game. Since then, the number has remained flat.

Capone said the department has not taken a position on whether to repeal the ban on Sunday hunting. A spokesman for the Patrick administration did not return calls seeking comment.

Gobi said the more hunting licenses the state sells, the more land it can preserve, noting the state this year has bought 4,000 acres of land for preservation through money raised from the $5 hunting and fishing licenses.

Hunters also serve a purpose, she said. "They help control the wildlife," said Gobi, who does not hunt.

She said she filed the bill on behalf of a constituent who complained about the law. But she said she understands those who disagree with her position and has heard complaints from an equestrian group and hikers.

"There's a lot of room for making some changes that appeal to everyone," she said, suggesting the possibility of allowing hunting on a limited number of Sundays. "I use the woods often, and I understand the woods are for everyone."

A similar bill has been proposed in the past, and last year it finally passed in a vote of the Legislature's joint committee on public safety and homeland security. Gobi said the full House and Senate never voted on the bill because the committee passed it too late in the session.

She said she hoped for a better outcome this year, but opponents cast doubt on the repeal passing and vowed to lobby against it.

Holmquist said the MSPCA hired a polling firm this summer to survey 1,000 adults about repealing the ban. She said the Pacific Market Research firm asked the following question: "Hunting on Sundays has been restricted in Massachusetts for over 100 years, allowing citizens and their families to enjoy nature without worrying about conflicts with hunters. Do you agree with keeping this restriction?"

She said 86 percent of the participants said they agreed.

"It may have started as a blue law, but with less land, more development, and hunting in towns like Framingham, there are now significant reasons to keep the ban," Holmquist said.

Steve Rayshick, cofounder of the Massachusetts Animal Rights Coalition, said the state should instead seek ways to limit hunting.

"When hunters are out, the rest of us can't necessarily use the property safely," he said. "There's the threat of being shot, and anything close to being shot would be traumatic for most people."

Hunters like Wallace argue it is rare that people get caught in the line of fire. They say they should have as much right to practice their sport as others do.

"Should joggers not be allowed to run in the road because they may get hit by cars?" Wallace said.

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.

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