Monday, April 14, 2014

A Sunday Hunting Victory in Virginia - Part I: Hounded Again

It's not news anymore, but it's still news to me.  I was once again part of an organized campaign to help lift or alleviate Virginia's last blue law - the Sunday Hunting Ban.  This year, we did it.  It wasn't without some bumps and scrapes, and I was disappointed to see where some alliances truly laid in the farm and hunting community.

In the legislature, we saw Delegate Lee Ware fail in his attempt to block this attempt for the 8th straight year in his House Subcommittee.  After a prior victory over hunters, Del. Ware had glibly told the bill's patron, "Boy, why'd you bring this bill to this committee!"" (Potomac News, 1/25/08).  Through hundreds of similar quotes and actions, Ware's intention to never allow any Sunday hunting bill, however narrowly written, to flow from the subcommittee to the House Agriculture Committee seemed pretty obvious.

In 2014, the Speaker of the House assigned the bill to the larger House Agriculture Committee, on which Del. Ware merely had one vote of 25 possible votes.   During Committee testimony, Ware tried to cover his tracks by thanking the bill's proponents for providing details on hunting safety, the popularity of Sunday hunting among hunters and non-hunters, and other information (all of which had been provided in prior years, interestingly).  He remarked that the "new" information painted a broader picture.  The "new" facts ultimately made no impact despite his public pleas, as he voted against the bill once more.  It passed the House Agriculture committee 12-10.   In the House, the bill passed easily with a nearly 2:1 margin, despite Delegate Matt Farriss decrying that Sunday hunting was a violation of scripture and specifically "The Twelve Commandments."  Yup.  Not a typo. Field and Stream ran the quote, too. 

Ware's financial sponsors, the Commonwealth Sportsmen's Alliance and its former legislative project (now independent) Virginia Hunting Dog Alliance, were furious.  They took to the internet, as all brave warriors do, and claimed that the proponents of Sunday hunting were usurping democracy (trust me, though, they didn't use the word "usurping") and intentionally gaming democracy by having an obviously biased Subcommittee bypassed to get a vote on a bill that the majority of legislators in both parties approved.

In previous years, the CSA and VAHDA and the indirectly associated  Virginia Farm Bureau (also inexplicably opposed to Sunday hunting - most state Farm Bureaus strongly support Sunday hunting) had relied upon groups of anti-hunters to join them in their testimony and effort to keep hunters out of the woods (you see, Virginia houndsmen spend Sundays retrieving loose dogs from properties that they might not have permission to hunt, so they directly benefit from the Sunday hunting ban).  Groups such as the Audubon Society, Humane Society of Virginia, and others were encouraged to come down and testify about their fear of raining bullets, head shots on kayakers, and a landscape littered with accidentally shot dogs and horses.  In 2012 (2/3/12; 3:58pm), the Farm Bureau's Wilmer Stoneman provided a description of the anti-Sunday hunting lobbying that the Virginia Farm Bureau was proud to sponsor, adding, "Please send this through to the folks with bicycle club connections."  Why would the Virginia Farm Bureau, the state's largest lobbyist for landowner rights be encouraging urban bicycle activists to lobby against rural landowner rights?  Answer that for yourself. It's a head scratcher.

With friends like these - VAHDA and
VFBF lobbied with HSUS in
past years against Sunday
hunting.  Surprise! The
anti-hunters actually want
to end YOUR hunting too!
During the 2012 effort, testimony by the VAHDA was so compelling to Ware's subcommittee, that when the anti-hunters were asked to follow the VAHDA testimony, they declined, ecstatic that the self-proclaimed leaders of Virginia houndsmen had made all of their anti-hunting arguments for them.   In 2014, this unlikely alliance became predictably (to anyone but VAHDA) caustic, as the Humane Society of the United States attacked houndsmen directly with two anti-hunting bills, one (creating a sunset date of 2054 for all fox pens in Virginia) of which became law.  As had been the case in past years on the Sunday hunting front, both the Hound Dog Alliance and the anti-hunters claimed victory.    Seems to me like a law ending one's sport in 40 years isn't much of a victory.  More on that - very avoidable - sad story is yet to come.

The rapid victory of Sunday Hunting in the House - previously an impossibility thanks to Delegate Lee Ware, likely unrelated to the continued campaign donations he receives from VAHDA, CSA, and VFBF (or some combination of the three)- left the leadership of the VAHDA, notably lobbyist Kirby Burch and president Jim Hackett, on their heels, no longer certain of victory over the majority of Virginia hunters who support Sunday hunting.   Suddenly, a race was on, as the decidely pro-Sunday hunting Senate got a crack at the bill.

VAHDA hit the public on two fronts that unfortunately for them, ended up colliding in embarrassment.  The first front was an assault on the media.   In previous years, poorly funded newspapers had happily run "articles" written, partially written, or heavily guided by VAHDA without a significant amount of editing, fact-checking or counter-statements.   In 2014, that changed, as a wide network of hunters united under the Facebook page "Legalize Virginia Sunday Hunting for All," would scan the state's newspapers daily, and would write to editors demanding retractions and corrections.  Soon, the newspapers began including quotes on Sunday hunting from supporters, as well.   First, the Roanoke Times.  Then the Virginian Pilot.  Then the Richmond Times-Dispatch.  Ultimately....the Washington Post.   Some pro-Sunday hunters wrote their own articles, which were published by newspapers around the state.  The media push was not working as well as VAHDA had hoped.  It was time to try the internet forums.  Unfortunately, most hunting forums are dominated by white collar hunters who work all week and who support Sunday hunting by an extremely large margin.  Again, Hackett and other VAHDA associates found little or no quarter in the corners of the world wide web.

On the VAHDA-friendly hound hunting website Speed Dogs, Hackett and others publicly decried the 2014 Sunday hunting push as underhanded and undemocratic," publishing missives to houndsmen that Sunday hunting advocates were anti-Christian and quite possibly anti-American.  In a secret letter (now public) to the Campbell County Board of Supervisors (1/24/14), Hackett alleged that the Sunday hunting bill had been somehow "fast tracked" "with hopes that it can be passed before County residents find out about it."  Hackett's bizarre letter further alleges that the supporters of Sunday hunting, "only have money making profits in mind."

This is where the second front of VAHDA's effort comes in - and their failure began.  Hackett's letter was more than a helpful update to local leaders.   No, VAHDA wanted the Campbell County Board of Supervisors to do something very specific - to pass a resolution opposing any new Sunday hunting.  The wording was important, because houndsmen already enjoy several types of Sunday hunting that conventional deer, duck, and turkey hunters do not.  Of course - the VAHDA wouldn't want to see a true Sunday hunting ban proposed by anybody - they already have Sunday hunting.  It became publicly clear that VAHDA, despite protestations over Christianity and "quiet rural Sundays," had already in years past received Sunday hunting for its supporters, and merely did not want to share the woods and fields with more hunters.  VAHDA's past legislative wrapup (2008) explains it best:  "there are no plans to seek any modifications to end any Sunday exemptions that currently exist."  Ain't that somethin'?

Burch's and Hackett's continued press assaults, as well as Hackett's letter, also presented a new issue:  continuing to tell a consistent story, or alternately, the truth.  Hackett's letter to Campbell County included a purported list of other counties that had "joined in" against (non-hound) Sunday hunting.  A major problem became that some of those counties, in fact, had not passed the resolution.   As "The List of 23 Counties" began circulating, hunters began contacting their county leadership to request public discussion on the matter.  In at least two counties, hunters found out that their local leaders were hours away from considering "The Resolution," and got involved.  Both of those counties (Gloucester and Powhatan) refused to adopt VAHDA's "Resolution" against Sunday hunting based on citizen input.  So where did citizen input occur for the 19? or 14? or 23? Counties who VAHDA claimed had signed "The Resolution?"  That process is best explained in a letter to Campbell County government from Derick Ratcliffe, who at various points directly and indirectly claims to be associated with VAHDA.  Recall also, VAHDA's complaints about the "transparency" and "undemocratic" nature of the Sunday hunting bill, being shouted loudly at about the same time Derick's letter went to Campbell County:

"Some counties found a way around the need to pass the resolution in time to have an immediate impact. They apparently called a 'Special Meeting' which then wasn't a Special Meeting because then re-opened the immediately previous monthly meeting, adopted the resolution, which was then on record as being passed at the immediately previous meeting." 

Now, I don't know about any of you reading this, but that sounds like a borderline illegal (and most certainly unethical and out-of-protocol) tactic.  That this tactic is being advocated by an organization whose leaders called a simple House Committee assignment "undemocratic" and whose supporters called Sunday hunting advocates un-American and anti-Christian is flatly hilarious.   This is literally gaming the legislative process - literally back-room, dark-room stuff.  Isn't it fascinating?  We sure thought so, and so we told everyone about it.

  VAHDA's local leverage against Sunday hunting got too public, too fast.  As Mr. Ratcliffe was kind enough to mention in his (now public) letter:  "Calling such meetings is almost unheard of and sends a message certain to generate attention in Richmond."  Hand it to the man - he was right - it generated attention - just not the attention that VAHDA had imagined.  As hunters tried to track down copies of this infamous "resolution," the call came in, "Someone in Gloucester County says that they are going to rubber stamp some resolution against Sunday hunting tonight."    12 hours later, Gloucester County said "no" to the anti-hunters and the Virginia Hound Dog Alliance.     Two months later, the resolution failed in Powhatan County - home of Kirby Burch (VAHDA) and Delegate Lee Ware (who is supported by VAHDA).  Yes, Mr. Ratcliffe, it certainly generated attention in Richmond.  A tip for the future for Mr. Ratcliffe:  if a parliamentary process is "almost unheard of," there's a good chance it could be illegal. 

As of April 2014, hunters across the Commonwealth of Virginia are petitioning their County Supervisors to determine what process was used to pass the anti-hunting Resolution in the name of their constituents.   When confronted by the media in my brother's home town, one of the local supervisors bravely told the reporter that signing the resolution was easy - because citizens should be in church on Sunday morning (pretty sure that's a violation of the 1st Amendment, the whole "establishing a religion" thingy....).    I suspect that Kirby Burch's "List of 23 Counties" will be roughly a "List of 11 Counties" by the time the 2015 Legislative Session begins.  Virginia has 95 Counties.

With only mild histrionics in the Virginia Senate in March 2014, including Republican Senator Stuart attempting to explain how he might (inexplicably) mistake a kayak for a duck, and with Republican Senator Obenshain (who lost his bid for Attorney General by 907 votes - the pro-Sunday hunting Facebook page has 5,400 members who voted against him) trading silly punches in the Senate hall with Kirby Burch,  the Sunday hunting bill passed with generous bipartisan support - a rare thing these days.    Even more rare, Virginia's new Democratic governor signed the Republican-sponsored version of the bill into law.  When does that ever happen anymore?

The Virginia Hound Dog Alliance has vowed to fight in 2015 to keep hunters off of their own properties on Sundays, in order to preserve the Sunday hunting and casual hound retrieval that the houndsmen currently enjoy to themselves (on others' property, sometimes without any permission at all).   They keep talking about these illicit County "resolutions" as a viable proposal to weaken Sunday hunting in Virginia.   I don't know about any of you, but I can't stand by and watch a group of supposed "property rights conservatives" (I'm sure they'd describe themselves that way) try to line up with anti-hunters once again to tell us that a legal activity should not be legal one day a week - a day of their choosing, not chosen by landowners.   I can't imagine their approach will stick, as the state game department (VDGIF) has openly stated its support for Sunday hunting since 2011.    I'll be honest, I can't wait to stop hearing the names Kirby Burch, Wilbur Stoneman, and Jim Hackett.  The names of men who might actually think that on Sundays, your land belongs to them.  I'd bet that each is a registered Republican.  So much for "property rights."  I'll let them explain their position at the next local GOP fundraiser.  "

It's April 2014.  After dozens of writing assignments, hundreds of phone calls, and thousands of emails, Virginia Sunday hunting is legal for anybody who can get on the water or get onto private property with permission.   Those who oppose Sunday hunting will never see the difference.   Those who support it will see the cash flow out of their wallets, and into the cash registers of local businesses, restaurants, gas stations, and hotels.  


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