Hunting amendment an invitation to lawsuits

October 26, 2010 

THERE ARE some states where animal-rights groups are taken seriously by state lawmakers, and hunters have reason to worry that hunting could be severely restricted or even outlawed.

South Carolina is not one of those states.

The hunting laws that pass our Legislature generally expand the circumstances under which hunting is allowed, or make very surgical restrictions, and then only after hunters themselves lobby for the changes. This year, for instance, the Legislature finally passed a law that in theory prohibits hunters from letting their dogs run wild on the property of people who have not given their permission: It was passed with the blessing of deer hunters who consider such people renegades, and it provides an exception for bear hunters.

The same legislative hostility greets people who try to restrict gun rights: Even with school teachers being laid off, legislators refused to do away with a special tax-free weekend for gun purchases. They won’t even consider holding parents responsible when their children use their unsecured guns to kill people.

It is against this backdrop that the Legislature is asking voters to enshrine “the right to hunt, fish, and harvest wildlife” in our state constitution.

It makes no sense to add more clutter to our constitution when you look at the reality in South Carolina. But it’s easy to understand how we got here when you realize that adding such language to state constitutions has become a fixation of a loose coalition of state and national hunting and gun advocates, which has managed to get similar language into eight other states’ constitutions, and on the ballots in three other states this year. Gun and hunting groups pretty much get what they want in our Legislature, even when all they want is to show how they can get what they want.

If it were written well, Constitutional Amendment 1 might merely be an academic problem for those of us who think constitutions should contain only those things that constitutions need to contain. The amendment is not written well.

In the same breath that it gives South Carolinians the “right” to hunt, it reiterates the Legislature’s power to restrict that right: “The citizens of this State have the right to hunt, fish, and harvest wildlife traditionally pursued, subject to laws and regulations promoting sound wildlife conservation and management as prescribed by the General Assembly. Nothing in this section shall be construed to abrogate any private property rights, existing state laws or regulations, or the state’s sovereignty over its natural resources.”

So what does this mean? As best as we can tell, in some imaginary future when hunting is no longer held sacred by the majority of legislators, those legislators would be prohibited from actually outlawing it. But they could, say, restrict hunting to a single one-acre plot of land, between the hours of 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of each leap year.

In fact, this is an invitation to lawsuits. Anytime the Legislature changes the hunting season or the bag limit — and heaven help us if it were ever to outlaw bear baying — someone would haul the state to court. They ought to lose, but who knows? It’s always dicey trying to figure out what courts will do when you grant new “rights.”

Maybe at least a legitimate argument could be made for taking that chance if hunting were under an actual threat in South Carolina. It isn’t, it won’t be in the foreseeable future, and the last thing we need to do is invite problems, as this amendment would do.

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