While hunter Edward Lawson says six days a week are enough for him, he notes that non-hunters get much of the year to hang out in the woods.
Tony Shifflett contends that Sunday hunting would benefit his business and the state.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO
When Karen Wood was shot to death in her own backyard in 1988 while wearing white mittens, some suggested the Maine woman's death was her own fault. After all, those mittens might resemble a deer's tail, and she had stepped outside during hunting season without wearing blaze orange.
As later dramatized in Carolyn Chute's novel The Merry Men, hunting symbolizes the clash of culture between traditional ways and land swarmed by wealthier newcomers who prefer cameras, binoculars, and mountain-bikes over scopes, powerful rifles, and deer stands.
That clash has been muted in the new debate about Sunday hunting, with state government officially acknowledging one key factor: money.
Hunting on Sunday has long been banned in Virginia, a relic of so-called blue laws, which kept the Sabbath day safe for the worship of deities, not bucks and gobblers. And while hunters have long wanted that forbidden fruit, bills to repeal the ban would always die like a bullet-riddled animal.
This year, however, the wind is blowing the hunters' way. With the hunting and fishing license sales that sustain it dropping, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries endorsed a repeal of the ban last June, and– calling it a property rights issue– Governor Bob McDonnell supports Sunday hunting.
Eight bills were introduced in the General Assembly, and by a vote of 29 to 11 the Senate on January 26 approved Sunday hunting on private property. The bills in the House of Delegates remain in committee, but they seem likely to pass in the Republican-controlled chamber.
Surprisingly, despite all the momentum, some hunters are downright ambivalent about lifting the Sunday ban. And some of the Virginians who prefer the outdoors for hiking, biking, and horseback riding have a pretty adamant reaction: They're afraid they're going to be shot.
"Would it be nice to be able to hunt on Sunday? Absolutely," says hunter Joe Ford. "Would it be nice to walk in the woods without worrying about hunters? Absolutely."
Living far in the wilds of northwestern Albemarle County near the Shenandoah National Forest, Ford has hunted all his life. And as a special permit-equipped bowhunter who's been called in to clear out landscape-chomping deer in some of the county's tonier subdivisions, he can pretty much hunt all year long.
"There have been so many discussions about this topic in hunting cabins and around campfires," says Ford. "A lot of guys working six days a week, struggling to feed their families, Sunday is the only day they can hunt."
When he was younger and working six days a week, Ford says he didn't like the Sunday ban either. Today, however, amid the various forms of deer hunting– archery, muzzleloader, rifle– the season can stretch from September to January.
"Virginia has one of the most liberal hunting seasons," Ford points out. "Why extend the season by 10 days?"
Ford believes Sunday hunting will pass the General Assembly because, he says, "It's all about the money."
Fellow hunter and hunting shop owner Tony Shifflett sees nothing wrong with that.
"You'll see hunting license sales go up 15 percent," predicts Shifflett, the owner of Rangeland in Ruckersville where crossbows range from $1,200 up to $2,000.
"A guy who works five days a week is reluctant to buy one with only one day to shoot," says Shifflett, noting that a federal excise tax of 11 percent contributes to state coffers.
"You can play football on Sunday," says Shifflett. "You can do NASCAR on Sunday. What's the difference?"
"I feel endangered," says Corky Shackelford, whose Dovetale Farm in Stony Point has been in his family for generations and it's posted with no trespassing/no hunting signs.
"There are hunters who don't respect those signs or they ignore them," says Shackelford. "It's like driving– some are really careful, and some are not."
Farmers like Shackelford traveled to Richmond on January 24 on behalf of the Farm Bureau, which opposes lifting the ban in the name of farmers.
"They want the peace and quiet one day a week," says Shackelford. "And they're concerned about their own safety and their livestock."
While Shackelford's never lost any livestock to hunters, he tells the story of a neighbor who denied a hunter access to pick up a turkey illegally killed on the farm. Two days later, the farmer found one of his cows dead– "shot point blank," Shackelford relates.
Between 2009 and 2011, the number of hunting licenses sold has dropped from 253,000 to 219,000, according to the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Shackelford doubts the argument that licenses will spike with Sunday hunting. He contends hunters will just gain more flexibility in their schedules.
"My own argument is fairness for other people," says Shackelford. "Horseback riders, hikers, bikers– they want a day, and hunters get six days."
Carrie Bess Douglass is a horseback rider who's had frightening run-ins with hunters, so she only rides her horse on Sunday, and then she wears orange blaze.
"When a horse hears shooting, it can go crazy," she says. "And this is an extraordinarily large animal."
Douglass declines to mention the details of interactions with reckless hunters. "Those guys have guns," she says.
"I understand they work all week long," says Douglass, an anthropology professor at UVA. "So do I. If we can't ride Saturday or Sunday, we won't have a day to ride for four months."
Douglas says Albemarle is the third largest horse-owning county in the state, and she asserts that hunters wanting seven days a week is too much. She has one suggestion for those who want to hunt on Sundays: make Saturday a non-hunting day.
"My argument is their argument," she says. "I only have one day to ride."
Shopkeeper Shifflett says nobody should fear hunters, whether on Sunday or any other day of the week.
"If you're following the law, no one should have to worry," says Shifflett. "I'd damn sure wear blaze orange when I'm walking. I'd have blaze on my dog. It's a common sense thing."
State Senator Bryce Reeves, a Republican who represents eastern Albemarle, says in a statement, "I know much has been discussed about the dangers and liabilities of Sunday hunting, but to me the issue is more of a fundamental question of private property rights."
State Senator Creigh Deeds was born and raised in Bath County, where schools are closed the first day of hunting season. Remembering how short the season was during his childhood, he voted against lifting the ban.
"The season is not two weeks anymore," says Deeds. "It stretches from September to January. I love hunting, but I think six days a week is enough."
The delegates who represent Albemarle County– Democrat David Toscano and Republicans Rob Bell, Steve Landes, and Matt Fariss, did not respond to a reporter's inquiries by press time .
Fariss, who has picked up three summons for illegal hunting (with two convictions), sits on the agriculture committee in the House of Delegates, which will likely take up the bills on February 1. He did not respond to multiple calls .
When things go wrong
Naturalist Marlene Condon, who wants to maintain the ban, mentions a bullet fired from private property whizzing by her head in her rural front yard in western Albemarle and points to a Department of Game and Inland Fisheries study that finds while 85 percent of Virginians like to use the outdoors, only three percent of the population has a hunting license.
The Game Department tracks hunting fatalities, and reports seven from July 1, 2008, to June 30, 2009, five of which were accidentally self-inflicted. For 2009-2010, there five fatalities; and in 2010-2011, there were four (with one self-inflicted in each of those seasons.)
The details behind the statistics can be tragic. On December 3 of last year, 18-year-old Travis B. Smith from Waynesboro was killed by his father, Thomas Scott Wright, when his rifle accidentally discharged on a hunting trip in West Virginia. And in November, seven-year-old Connor Ryan Craig was accidentally killed by his 10-year-old brother as the two boys were hunting with their father in Nelson County.
When someone is shot hunting in Virginia, usually it's hunters shooting other hunters, but in 2009 a man named Jason Cloutier, who failed to properly identify his target, killed 23-year-old Ferrum College student Jessica Goode and injured another student as they searched for frog specimens for a science class.
While that is the Game Department's only official case of a non-hunter getting killed, one may have happened in Albemarle. Just ask Hugh Garrison.
On November 29, 1997, his wife of 30 years, Janice Garrison, was shot in the head in their Stony Point-area yard after they heard gunshots coming from the surrounding land– land that was posted no hunting.
Given the trauma Hugh Garrison has experienced from seeing his wife killed while standing beside him, perhaps it's not surprising he's no fan of reckless hunters– nor extending hunting to seven days a week.
"A stupid idea," says Garrison. "We have enough problems dodging bullets six days a week. Can't we have one day a week with peace and quiet?"
Last fall, Garrison called the police when he heard hunters after dark who were discharging weapons close to his house.
The man suspected of firing the shot that killed Janice Garrison, Glen Scott Snow, was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm the day she died and was sentenced to 37 months in prison.
"I've seen the man in camo on a four-wheeler," alleges Garrison. "His life has gone on."
"Sunday is the Sabbath," says Garrison, unappeased to learn that the Senate added an amendment that forbids hunting within 250 yards of a church.
In 2006, after a pet cat was gunned down by an angry homeowner in the Bentivar subdivision, Albemarle County officials entertained the idea of banning gunfire in rural areas near residences. However, property rights opponents helped quash that plan.
As rare as it is that pets or humans are killed during hunters' activities, naturalist Condon contends that she should have the right to feel safe outside, and she notes the obvious, "If you're the one who gets shot, it matters."
Update 10:55am, January 31: An early online version of this story accurately quoted Professor Douglass when she referred to a horse as a "two-ton" animal, she says she meant that metaphorically to show that it's a really big animal. That quotation was deleted before the story went to press.