09/16/2011 08:35 am ET | Updated Nov 15, 2011

Virginia's Sunday Hunting Debate Pits Gun Rights Against Sabbath

As you start loading your guns for the start of Virginia's deer-hunting season, you might wonder why it isn't legal to hunt on Sunday. Not too long ago, Mark Keam, a progressive Democrat who has represented part of suburban Fairfax County in Virginia's House of Delegates since 2009, was wondering the same thing.

Under section 29.1-521 of the Virginia Code, it is illegal to hunt or kill any animal, even a "nuisance" animal and even on private land, on Sundays, "a rest day for all species of wild bird and wild animal life, except raccoons, which may be hunted until 2:00 a.m. on Sunday mornings."

Virginia is one of 11 states with versions of this blue law still on the books. Some of these states, like Massachusetts and Delaware, prohibit Sunday hunting altogether; others, like West Virginia, Maryland and South Carolina, restrict Sunday hunting in various ways, like by only allowing bow hunting on private land.

After hearing from his constituents about the many problems of deer overpopulation -- Lyme disease, property damage, car accidents -- Keam looked for ways to address these problems, and came up with one answer: legalize Sunday hunting.

Keam, a lawyer, decided there were at least three good reasons to lift the restriction. First, to control the deer population: research convinced Keam that Sunday hunting was the only way to cull an expanding population. Second is a conflict he perceives between the Sunday ban and the Virginia constitution, which grants residents the right to hunt via a 2000 amendment that states "The people have a right to hunt, fish, and harvest game, subject to such regulations and restrictions as the General Assembly may prescribe by general law." (Keam does recognize that this doesn't actually require Sunday hunting to be allowed; Virginia Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli issued a legal opinion saying the same.) Third is that Sunday hunting might well be good for the economy, since hunters would be encouraged to spend their food and hotel money in state, rather than taking it to Maryland or other places that do allow at least some hunting on Sunday.

And so last winter, Keam introduced House Bill 2442, companion legislation to a Virginia Senate bill introduced by another Fairfax Democrat, Senator Chap Petersen, that would also have lifted the Sunday hunting ban. Petersen's bill died in the Senate's Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources. Keam's bill got a hearing but never made it out of the subcommittee.

“It turns out that the Sunday hunting issue has been around for decades,” Keam says. "Every year it comes up, at least in recent memory. The subcommittee doesn't even bother to look at it."

Supporters of the ban include a motley crew with mixed interests. The Humane Society opposes lifting the ban on animal cruelty grounds. Hikers oppose lifting the ban because they'd like to hike on Sundays without worrying about being shot at. Some farmers, historically along with the Farm Bureau, want to keep the ban because a lot of hunting takes place on private land and they want one day a week to keep the land free of bullets. The Virginia Hunting Dog Alliance released a position paper in opposition to Sunday hunting for religious reasons: "The first and foremost reason is our faith. The Fourth Commandment is reason enough to oppose hunting on Sunday. Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. We also recognize that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath."

Bill Cochran, a former outdoor editor for the Roanoke Times, thinks none of these groups is standing in the way of Sunday hunting more than hunters themselves, who are, he says, "deeply divided" on the Sunday hunting issue for more than religious reason.

"Why would so many hunters be opposed to Sunday hunting? For one thing, they are Virginians!" Cochran says. "But I believe the number one reason is they don't want to upset the private landowners who weigh in heavily against it. Virginia has more than two million acres of public land where hunting is permitted, yet private land plays a major role in the sport. That's where most of the game is. Many hunters, especially those who use dogs, believe Sunday hunting would damage the amiable relationship they enjoy with landowners."

On the other side. Keam says, he discovered some surprises amongst his supporters. "Two years ago when I ran for office, I talked about how we can fight with the NRA on gun control laws, and the NRA went after me big time. Now we're working on the same side, inadvertently,” he says. Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell also signaled his support when the Virginia Board of Game and Inland Fisheries passed a resolution endorsing Sunday hunting. The Board's declared its support in June, by which time the Sunday hunting legislation was already dead; Cochran says he expects the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to play a major role when Sunday hunting legislation gets re-introduced -- as Cochran expects it will -- during the legislature's next term.

But Sunday hunting has not really become a campaign issue for Keam, at least not so far. Transportation, he says, is the big one, with the economy and education after that. Neither the NRA nor the Humane Society has said anything about his candidacy. Keam says he'll support Sunday hunting legislation if it's introduced again, but he's not even sure that he’ll introduce another bill himself (Virginia delegates can only introduce 15 bills during short sessions). And though he went rabbit hunting as a child and as an adult sometimes goes skeet-shooting, Keam will be too busy this fall to do any shooting.

"I don't really have a dog in the fight. I don't really hunt. I'm not an avid outdoors-person," he says. "I'm a lawyer, I work in the corporate world, and I live in the middle of Vienna."