Two of the most influential forces in conservative lobbying are poised to go head to head this fall over an issue some Republican lawmakers dread might be one of the most difficult of the session.
Many sportsmen hope Pennsylvania will allow more hunting on Sundays. It’s the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau vs. the National Rifle Association in a title bout over the legalization of hunting on Sunday.
The Farm Bureau is the defending champion of one of the last remaining blue laws that forbids hunting of most game species on the Lord’s designated day of rest.
Apart from the religious justification for the ban, Farm Bureau members also claim they want one day free of hunters traipsing across their property.
Hikers and bird-watchers join the farmers, saying they want one day a week of bullet-free passage through Penn’s Woods. And some sportsmen also support the ban, saying the wild critters they stalk need a day of rest as well.
Challenging that position is the Sunday Hunting Coalition, led by the National Rifle Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation with help from a diverse collection of national outdoor interests.
The economic benefit of extending hunting to Sunday would be significant, they say.
In an age when most hunters are limited to the weekend to pursue their sport, the change would effectively double the value — not the price — of their license.
Advocates say the change might also prompt hunters who have quit for lack of time to return to the sport, it might draw more hunters from outside the state, and it might spur interest in hunting among young people.
The corresponding increase in hunting activity, they say, would have direct and indirect economic impacts totaling more than 8,000 jobs and $764 million in Pennsylvania.
They also say the underpinnings of the blue law are wormy with age and irrelevance — one of the last relicts of colonial nanny-state dogma.
Almost every other blue law has fallen. Pennsylvanians can shop on Sunday. You can drink on Sunday. You can gamble on Sunday. You can now buy a motorcycle on Sunday. But you can’t hunt (or buy a vehicle).
The challenge is not new, but it has new-found traction this year.
The Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmens Clubs has come out in support of dropping the ban on Sunday hunting.
And there’s a bipartisan push from the leaders of the House Game & Fisheries Committee, with majority chair Rep. John Evans, R-Erie, and minority chair Rep. Edward Staback, D-Lackawanna County, solidly behind the change.
Evans — long opposed to the idea — changed his mind.
“I was presented with the facts,” Evans said. “From an economic standpoint, it’s a real shot in the arm for the Pennsylvania economy, and when we’re coming out of a recession, these types of opportunities need to be seized.”
“Folks who argue against it generally are believers in the blue laws established years ago” said Evans, “but — you know — we have changed as a society.”
“If you don’t want Sunday hunting on your land,” he said, “all you have to do is post your land ‘No Sunday Hunting.’ It’s that simple. They really want to put their wishes out there for everybody to abide by.”
Evans said he believes the proposal has a better chance than in past years.
“It can become an emotional issue, and no one wants to upset constituent groups, especially the Farm Bureau, but the NRA, I think, is pretty important for many members, too,” he said.
And there’s the crux.
Until now, the Farm Bureau has made sure any Sunday hunting proposal was basically dead on arrival.
It has more than 53,000 members across the state and is a voice that must be minded by rural legislators.
The Sunday hunting issue is “near and dear to the hearts of our farmers, who overwhelmingly oppose it,” said Mark O’Neill, media relations director for the Farm Bureau.
It’s “one of top issues the Farm Bureau will be dealing with this year,” he said.
That’s because it’s also the top issue of the Sunday Hunting Coalition.
“There are interests outside Pennsylvania with money coming in and pushing this,” O’Neill said. “They are targeting Pennsylvania.”
That’s only partially true, said Jake McGuigan, director of state affairs for the National Shooting Sports Foundation — the NRA’s partner in the Sunday Hunting Coalition.
“Pennsylvania is a major priority for us this year,” he acknowledged, but the group hardly represents “outside interests.”
Every member of the Sunday Hunting Coalition has significant membership inside Pennsylvania.
The NRA alone has some 400,000 Pennsylvanians on its rolls.
The NSSF has more than 500 Pennsylvania businesses on its rolls.
Add the membership and customer base of others in the coalition — Cabela’s, Bass Pro, Dick’s, Quality Deer Management — and “what we’re bringing is a united front,” said O’Neill.
That’s new, and that has the Farm Bureau on the ropes.
“When you have a lot of money and power behind you ... they may have more in
fluence than in the past,” said O’Neill.
The Farm Bureau has solid membership and clout, he said, “But I don’t know we have the money to stand up to the NRA.”
They might not have to.
Evans’ vice chair, Rep. Todd Rock, R-Waynesboro, isn’t on board with the proposal nor are other Republicans on the committee.
“I had six local farmers come into my office together,” said Rock, “and they said they would post their land” if the measure passed. “They opposed it for religious reasons and others.”
Rock said a majority of his constituents are opposed — probably 70 percent.
He’s adopting a “wait-and-see” stance.
He doesn’t know what the bill is ultimately going to look like, and there are still two more big public
hearings on the matter scheduled for September and October.
Between now and then, expect the NRA and its partners to throw its “grassroots” machinery into gear.
“That would be the key,” Staback said. “The sporting community needs to understand they need to get involved. If they don’t do that, if they simply sit back and expect it to happen on its own, it won’t.”
But that will also put many conservative legislators on the rack — pulled between two bedrock constituencies: farmers and sportsmen.
“For some members, it could be the toughest vote they have to make,” Rock said. “This is a big deal, and I don’t know where it’s going to end up. ... This is not an easy one.”