March 31, 2005

March 31, 2005 | Commentary on Legal Issues

Hunters in the Crosshairs

Hunters always have feared that gun-control activists had more in mind than a self-professed mission to "keep weapons out of the hands of criminals." They've always sensed that the ultimate goal was to eviscerate the Second Amendment and ban hunting altogether.

 

Until recently, it seemed hunters were just being paranoid. But, as the jokesters say, it's not paranoia if they really are against you. And to judge by recent events in New York and Texas, "they" -- gun-control advocates and their fellow travelers -- do indeed seem to be taking aim at hunters.

 

New York has a large, vibrant hunting community outside its metropolitan areas. Assemblyman Alexander Grannis, who is from the nation's largest metro area, has drafted a bill that could, if passed in its present form, make all hunting illegal in the Empire State. The text of New York State Assembly Bill 1850 reads, in part: "A person is guilty of aggravated cruelty to animals when … he or she intentionally kills … an animal or wild game [or] wild birds."

 

You don't have to be a National Rifle Association die-hard to see the danger in a bill that makes pursuit of game, "so as to capture or kill," a felony with a minimum one-year prison sentence and a $5,000 fine. Advocates, of course, claim this is merely a means to criminalize the torture of animals. But the phrase "intentionally kills," in this context, clearly could apply to hunters as well as those who would mistreat animals for fun.

 

This would be ironic. Hunters are among the most conservation-minded Americans. They make up large portions of groups such as Ducks Unlimited and the Izaak Walton League. As such, they do a lot of the actual work needed to maintain habitats and manage the species.

 

But that's not good enough for another New York assemblyman. Felix W. Ortiz, a Democrat from the hunting hotbed of Brooklyn, has proposed a bill (AB 4306) that would create a state office to "study, develop, encourage and provide assistance for non-lethal management of wildlife." Ortiz's concern for the wildlife of his district would result in taxpayers funding the radical political agenda of the anti-hunting movement.

 

An attempt to criminalize hunting also has even taken root in Texas.Rep. Toby Goodman, a Democrat whose district lies between Dallas and Fort Worth, has introduced House Bill 326, which would make it illegal to "cause bodily injury to an animal." Again, it sounds harmless enough. No sane person favors beating up animals. But what is to stop this from becoming a law against all hunting?

 

Texas law already forbids what most of us think of as cruelty to animals. And under current law, uncaptured wild creatures are not defined as protected animals. Bill 326, however, would eliminate this explicit hunting exemption and define an animal as any "nonhuman mammal [or] bird." Make no mistake: Goodman is trying to outlaw hunting. He's trying to make it a criminal offense, punishable by a sentence of up to one year in prison and a $4,000 fine.

 

But Americans can fight back. Indeed, they already are:

  • Last November, Alaskan voters rejected a proposal to ban bear hunting with bait, and Maine voters rejected proposals to ban bear trapping and hunting with bait or hounds.
  • In 2002, voters in Connecticut and Iowa defeated proposals that would have over-expanded the definition of animal cruelty.

Meanwhile, Alabama, California, Minnesota, Virginia and Wisconsin have passed constitutional amendments to ensure hunting and fishing rights. Pennsylvania could be next: Rep. Matthew Baker has proposed an amendment that would guarantee the right to hunt and fish in the Keystone state. Arkansas and Tennessee are considering similar amendments.

 

What the anti-hunting zealots are proposing flouts common sense. No reasonable person supports animal cruelty. Most also understand that traditional hunting isn't a crime. Nevertheless, misguided legislators and radical special-interest groups push zealous agendas that indiscriminately criminalize whatever they personally dislike.

 

This breaks with centuries of legal doctrine. Under traditional American law, a criminal conviction requires both criminal intent (mens rea)and a criminal act (actus rea)-- i.e., premeditated murder, not premeditated duck hunting. Reasonable people can disagree over the meaning of the Second Amendment, but it is the rare American who doesn't recognize the right to hunt.

 

These lawmakers are attempting to chip away at our rights. That's wrong, and it's up to all of us to watch our legislatures and be ready to step in when they try to go too far.


Trent England is a policy analyst and Steve Muscatello is a researcher in the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

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