Does Hunting Need Constitutional Protections?

North Carolina is the latest state where voters will weigh in on the debate.
by | October 10, 2018
Hunter carrying a rifle and the bird he killed.
(TNS/Dennis Anderson)

For a summary of November's most important ballot measures, click here.

This November, North Carolina voters will decide whether to codify the right to hunt and fish in the state’s constitution.

This type of amendment is not new, though it has rapidly gained steam in the last two decades. More than 20 states have cemented a constitutional right to hunt and fish -- most through the ballot box. The effort is backed by outdoor sporting groups and the National Rifle Association (NRA) and faces concerns from animal rights groups.

If approved by voters, this change would limit the state's ability to regulate hunting and establish hunting as the "preferred" means of managing wildlife.

Some opponents view this policy through the lens of gun rights. After all, the NRA testified in support of the amendment in June. But supporters say it's about protecting a rural pastime that in some cases becomes a necessary source of food.

The hunting community believes hunting is in danger "as there is more and more awareness of animal welfare in society," says Stacey Gordon, a law professor with the University of Montana who has written about hunting amendments.

Last month, for instance, a federal judge blocked the Trump administration’s attempt to remove protections for grizzly bears. The court decision prevented hunts that were set to take place in Idaho and Wyoming. In New Jersey, hunting groups are suing the state after Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy banned bear hunting on state lands.

"Throughout the country, organizations lobby every day to restrict or even prohibit hunting and fishing," says Republican state Sen. Tom McInnis, a cosponsor of North Carolina’s right-to-hunt amendment. This measure, he says, is "about protecting the rights of our children and grandchildren to hunt and fish in North Carolina."

The NRA, which would neither confirm nor deny any financial involvement in the right-to-hunt campaign, echoes that sentiment.

"This is an important piece of legislation designed to safeguard North Carolina’s hunting heritage," says NRA spokesman Lars Dalseide.

But opponents of the amendment, like Democratic North Carolina state Sen. Floyd McKissick, say it is unnecessary and would "clutter" the constitution. He also believes Republicans are using fear over hunting to drive the GOP base to the polls.

"You can’t divorce this issue from the other five constitutional amendments [on the November ballot]," says McKissick, pointing to two measures that would transfer power from the Democratic governor’s office to the GOP-controlled General Assembly. "There’s concern about driving out targeted groups of voters ... that may want to keep the Republican majority in office."

For some animal rights activists, their issue with hunting amendments is the broad language, says Jill Fritz, director of Wildlife Protection for the Humane Society of the United States. Groups like hers oppose what they view as "inhumane" methods, such as "body-gripping" traps, bear baiting and the use of hunting dogs. As it stands, the added section to North Carolina’s constitution would protect the “the right to use traditional methods” of hunting, fishing and wildlife harvest but does not specify what those methods include.

Earlier this year, Democratic state Rep. Pricey Harrison unsuccessfully proposed a change to the amendment that would have restricted Sunday hunting and banned the use of steel jaw traps and poison.

In a 2017 survey, 87 percent of U.S. respondents said that it is acceptable to hunt for food; only 37 percent approve of trophy hunting. Fritz says it is this evolving view that right-to-hunt laws need to reflect.

Ultimately, Harrison says, "the devil will be in the details."

For a summary of November's most important ballot measures, click here.