February 17, 2014 10:03:14 AM
JACKSON -- Mississippi voters will decide in November whether to amend the state constitution to guarantee the right to hunt and fish.
The Legislature decided 2012 to put the issue before voters, but kept it off the ballot until 2014. The 2012 ballot already had heavy constitutional and polarizing proposals -- the abortion-related "personhood" amendment, which failed, and new eminent domain restrictions, which passed.
The guarantee of the right to hunt and fish needs majority support from voters in November to become enshrined in the Mississippi Constitution.
"There are some states where it is considered a privilege to hunt and fish; other states it is a right. This is a little layer of protection ... making hunting and fishing steadfast against those who may want to infringe on those rights," said Jim Walker, spokesman for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, which supported the authorizing legislation, House Concurrent Resolution 30.
Adding the language to state constitutions makes it harder to change, since doing so typically requires legislative action followed by approval of voters.
Mississippi is the latest in a string of states that have passed or are considering right-to-hunt measures to head off feared attacks on the pastime.
"We're hoping to send a message to the rest of the country that we are passionate about our hunting and fishing. We don't want anybody dabbling with our sportsmen's way of life," said Rep. Lester "Bubba" Carpenter, R-Burnsville, lead sponsor of the resolution.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 17 states guarantee the right to hunt and fish in their constitutions.
Vermont's language dates back to 1777, while the remainder -- in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming -- have been adopted since 1996.
California and Rhode Island have language in their constitutions guaranteeing the right to fish, but not to hunt.
Supporters are motivated by concerns over animal rights groups that have challenged hunting rights elsewhere. They say the amendments would deter new limits on hunting seasons, restrictions on hunting weapons or further protections for prey other than those mandated under endangered species laws.
Opponents say such provisions clutter a constitution and overstate the threat to sportsmen's activities. Officials of one animal rights group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, have called such proposals a solution in search of a problem.
Other skeptics say they can't envision a scenario in which lawmakers would try to ban hunting or fishing. There doesn't appear to be any group organizing to advocate for or against the Mississippi measure.
However, right-to-hunt amendments, which generally give citizens "the right to hunt, fish and harvest wildlife" subject to existing laws and regulations, are backed by a loose nationwide alliance of hunting and gun advocacy groups.
Mississippi House Wildlife Committee Chairman Scott Bounds, R-Philadelphia, said the proposal passed both houses overwhelmingly.
Bounds, one of 34 co-sponsors on HCR 30, said the Legislature is asking voters "to protect, treasure and enjoy these traditions for future generations of Mississippi sportsmen for many years to come."
The proposal won't change the Mississippi wildlife commission's ability to regulate hunting and fishing or the Legislature's ability pass hunting and fishing laws. The measure also won't affect laws regarding trespass, property rights, maintenance of levees or regulation of commercial activities.
Walker, of Mississippi's wildlife and fisheries agency, said people spend lots of money on hunting and fishing: "From the guy who sells you that four-wheel drive truck to the guy who hands you that sausage and biscuit in the morning at the local coffee shop as you head out to hunt ... all of that represents millions of dollars in the economy."