established constitutional protections

Gun Rights

Between the country’s founding in 1776 and the mid-1990s, Vermont was the only state with a right to hunt and fish in its state constitution. The trend of constitutional amendments establishing individuals’ rights to hunt and fish began in 1996, when Alabama voters cast their ballots in support of what was called the sportsperson’s bill of rights.[1]

As of November 2020, a total of 23 states had passed constitutional amendments proclaiming a right to hunt and fish, starting with the 1996 vote in Alabama. Voters in one state—Arizona—rejected a constitutional amendment in 2010.[1]

States with amendments

See also: Right to hunt and fish constitutional amendments

As of January 2023, 23 states had constitutional provisions providing for the right to hunt and fish. Vermont was the first state to constitutionalize such a right in 1777. The other 22 states had all adopted right to hunt and fish amendments since 1996. The following is a list of states with constitutional amendments establishing the right to hunt and fish:[2]

The state constitutions of California and Rhode Island included amendments guaranteeing the right to fish, but not to hunt.[3]

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NRA-model amendment

The National Rifle Association advocates for amending state constitutions to establish constitutional rights to hunt, fish, and harvest wildlife. The organization provided the following text to serve as model language for a constitutional amendment:[4]

The citizens of this State have the right to hunt, fish, and harvest wildlife, including the use of traditional methods, subject only to statutes enacted by the Legislature and regulations adopted by the designated agency [or “fish and game commission” or state-specific term] to promote wildlife conservation and management and to preserve the future of hunting and fishing. Public hunting and fishing shall be a preferred means of managing and controlling wildlife. This section shall not be construed to modify any provision of law relating to trespass or property rights.[5]

Supporting arguments

Oklahoman Ed Godfrey made the following argument:

[The constitutional amendment] is a pre-emptive strike, so to speak, making it more difficult for any nutty animal rights activist or anti-hunting organization to target Oklahoma.

If the measure is approved, any attempt to ban the hunting of any traditional or non-threatened species in Oklahoma would require amending the constitution.

So if state lawmakers were to go insane and wanted to eliminate deer hunting, for example, it couldn’t be done without a vote of the people.[5]

—Ed Godfrey[6]

Tennessee Sen. Doug Jackson (D-25) said an amendment was needed in his state to protect against an anti-hunting “environment that doesn‘t exist today, but that could exist tomorrow.” According to Jeffrey Omar Usman, two trends are often cited to back up this claim, one a demographic trend that shows the average age of hunters increasing and the other related to an uptick in ballot initiatives limiting hunting.[7]

Opposing arguments

Stacey Gordon, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Montana, stated, “All [amendments] are a product of special interest fears and, as often the case when both special interests and fear control, most are problematic. All amend state constitutions unnecessarily.”[8] Texas Rep. Roland Gutierrez (D-119) stated that supporters of right to hunt and fish amendments treat state constitutions like toys. He said:

At the end of the day, what we put in our constitution is important and our constitution isn’t a toy. It’s not an item or a document to be taken lightly and if we are asking to put things in our constitution that say this constitutional right to fish and hunt, how about our constitutional right to watch Sunday night football or our constitutional right to love the San Antonio Spurs?… When we do these things to our constitution and make voters go out and vote for these things, it demeans the document and it demeans us.”[5]
—Rep. Roland Gutierrez[9]

The Director of the Humane Society’s Wildlife Abuse Campaign, Tracy Coppola, said that right to hunt and fish amendments would “prevent really progressive reform that would be necessary if there were really egregious abuse…”[10]

Judicial interpretation


An American paddlefish illustration provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Tennessee Commercial Fishermen’s Association (TCFA) and Tennessee Roe Fishermen’s Association (TRFA) challenged the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission (TWRC) in court over restrictions on catching paddlefish. The TWRC limits paddlefish harvesting in some areas and bans harvesting in other areas. American Paddlefish are considered a vulnerable species, according to the IUCN.[11] Commercial fishers catch them for their valuable meat and eggs. Their eggs are used to make caviar.[12]

On May 14, 2015, Judge Russell T. Perkins of the Davidson County Chancery Court ruled against the TCFA and TRFA. He cited Tennessee’s right to hunt and fish amendment in his decision, arguing that the amendment allows “reasonable regulations and restrictions” and does not “limit the state’s power to regulate commercial activity.” Judge Perkins also noted that restrictions of paddlefish harvesting were implemented before voters approved the amendment in 2010. The judge concluded that:

Contrary to plaintiffs’ assertion, the language of this amendment does not appear to limit any right the state had to regulate commercial activity before the amendment passed nor does it indicate that it should be interposed to retroactively set aside previously adopted wildlife regulations.

This provision does not, in itself, restrict the state’s right to regulate commercial fishing and does not turn the personal right to fish using traditional methods ‘to take non-threatened species’ into a limit on the state’s power to regulate commercial fishing.[5]

—Judge Russell T. Perkins[12]

Orion Sporting Group v. Nelson County

Orion Sporting Group, LLC, a firm owning a hunting preserve in Nelson County, Virginia, sought a permit for a sporting clays facility. Orion brought the denial of permit before the Virginia 24th Judicial Circuit, where Judge J. Michael Gamble ruled in favor of Nelson County on June 29, 2005. Orion argued that Virginia’s Question 2, which provided a constitutional right to hunt and fish, protected the firm’s ability to run a sporting clays facility. Orion’s and Nelson County’s lawyers argued over what counts as “hunting.”[13]

Judge Gamble determined that while “the constitutional right to hunt, fish, and harvest game under the Constitution of Virginia is a fundamental right,” the “word ‘hunt’ in its plain, obvious, and common sense means the pursuit of game. Shooting sporting clays is not the pursuit of game.”

Orion appealed the case to the Virginia Supreme Court, which declined to review it.[13]

WCCCD v. Wisconsin DNR

Mourning dove (Zenaida macroura) is native to Wisconsin.

In May 2001, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources established a hunting season for mourning doves during the months of September and October. In June, the Wisconsin Citizens Concerned for Cranes and Doves (WCCCD) filed litigation against the DNR’s action, arguing the department exceeded its authority. On April 6, 2004, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in favor of the DNR, finding that legislation “granted broad authority to the DNR to set open and closed seasons for “game”… and mourning doves fall within the unambiguous definition of “game.” However, Wisconsin’s Question 1, which instituted a right to hunt and fish, did not impact the court’s decision.[14] According to the Wisconsin Supreme Court:

The 2003 amendment does not impose any limitation upon the power of the state or DNR to regulate hunting, other than that any restrictions on hunting must be reasonable. … However, we do note that the fact that citizens of this state enjoy the right to hunt in the absence of reasonable regulations does not necessarily mean that it is “open season” on any species of birds not regulated by the DNR.[5]
—Wisconsin Supreme Court[14]

See also

  1. 1.0 1.1 NCSL, “State Constitutional Right to Hunt and Fish,” March 26, 2015
  2. National Conference of State Legislatures, “State Constitutional Right to Hunt and Fish,” March 26, 2015
  3. National Shooting Sports Foundation, “State “Right to Hunt and Fish” Protections,” accessed May 20, 2015
  4. NRA-ILA, “Right to Hunt & Fish Amendments,” accessed June 8, 2015
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 Note: This text is quoted verbatim from the original source. Any inconsistencies are attributable to the original source. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name “quotedisclaimer” defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name “quotedisclaimer” defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name “quotedisclaimer” defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name “quotedisclaimer” defined multiple times with different content
  6. The Oklahoman, “Protecting a proud tradition,” October 20, 2008
  7. Jeffrey Omar Usman, “The Game is Afoot: Constitutionalizing the Right to Hunt and Fish in the Tennessee Constitution,” Tennessee Law Review 77 (2009): 57-109.
  8. Stacey Gordon, “A Solution in Search of a Problem: The Difficulty with State Constitutional “Right to Hunt” Amendments,” Public Land & Resources Law Review 35 (2014): 4-50
  9. Houston Chronicle, “Should Texas constitution include a right to hunt and fish?” May 20, 2015
  10. Governing, “‘Right to Hunt’ Amendments Pit Gun Rights vs. Animal Welfare,” September 19, 2014
  11. IUCN, “Polyodon spathula,” accessed November 7, 2016
  12. 12.0 12.1 Knoxville News Sentinel, “Judge’s ruling called ‘win for wildlife enthusiasts’,” May 28, 2015
  13. 13.0 13.1 Stephen P. Halbrook, “The Constitutional Right to Hunt: New Recognition of an Old Liberty in Virginia,” William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal 19 (1): 197-233.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Wisconsin Courts, “WCCCD v. Wisconsin DNR,” April 6, 2004

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