Sunday hunting could come to Pennsylvania as early as this fall
It seems not a matter of if, but when.
Next week, the state Senate is expected to vote on an amended Senate Bill 147, paving the way for Sunday hunting in Pennsylvania.
The original version called for allowing hunting on 14 Sundays, 10 in fall and four in spring. Sen. Dan Laughlin, the Erie County Republican who authored the legislation, said he now will propose three days of Sunday hunting when it comes up for a vote on the Senate floor.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission would decide which Sundays those are.
That change, Laughlin said, was one of two necessary compromises. The other is the bill raises the crime of trespassing to a primary offense. Those carry stiffer penalties and can be enforced by Commission game wardens.
“Quite frankly, I had to negotiate with some of my members that are big (Pennsylvania) Farm Bureau fans, and the agreement is we’re going to do three,” Laughlin said.
The Farm Bureau has, for decades, opposed legalization of Sunday hunting. That remains the case, said bureau spokesman Mark O’Neill.
But, for the first time, he added, “there is the possibility” the group would take a neutral stance if certain conditions are met. Limiting hunting to three Sundays and the trespass changes are two of them, he said.
O’Neill wouldn’t say that’s enough.
“We’re withholding our neutrality until we can see what the specific language is in the bill,” O’Neill said.
Laughlin, though, said that’s a formality. He expects the Senate to approve the amended bill before the legislative session ends June 28.
He also said he has commitments from House of Representatives leadership, as well as the majority and minatory chairmen of the House game and fisheries committee, to move the bill as soon as lawmakers return to session in September.
So with luck, Laughlin said, the bill will go before Gov. Tom Wolf for his signature in September or October at the latest.
“I feel pretty strongly that this is going to make it all the way,” Laughlin said. “I expect it to get signed into law because there’s no further pushback on it.”
Not all agree.
Sunday hunting has its supporters. They’re hailing its anticipated legalization as a step forward for the state’s hunting heritage and economy.
Harold Daub, executive director of the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen and Conservationists — and formerly director of Hunters United for Sunday hunting — offered a comparison.
Years ago, he said, when the first casinos opened in Atlantic City, Pennsylvanians used to take their money to New Jersey to spend. Lawmakers noticed and opened casinos here to keep a lot of that money home.
It’s the same with Sunday hunting, he said.
In recent years, every state that touches Pennsylvania — Ohio, New York, New Jersey, Maryland and West Virginia — adopted Sunday hunting. That took hunters out of state.
Lawmakers, encouraged by a coalition of 20 statewide sportsmen’s groups, finally came to understand hunters were likewise taking their money elsewhere, he said.
Senate Bill 147, he said, is their way of stopping that.
“So hopefully this is a great example of when Pennsylvania conservationists come together, we get things moving,” Daub said.
“It took way too long to get here. But I’m glad we’re here now. We’ll take this small victory and build from there.”
But opponents remain, too.
Like the Farm Bureau, the Keystone Trails Association — the state’s largest hiker group — traditionally opposed Sunday hunting. It still does, executive director Joe Neville said.
Safety is the primary concern, he said. A lot of hikers are “just not comfortable around hunters, around guns.”
That’s based more on emotion than data, he admitted.
According to the Game Commission, 2018 marked six consecutive years with fewer than 30 hunting accidents — termed hunting-related shooting incidents — across Pennsylvania. There were none in the recently concluded spring gobbler season.
That’s in a state with about 800,000 hunters.
“What people are going to see is that, all of the claims that they can’t go in the woods if they don’t hunt, they can’t go out and enjoy all that, it’s just a fallacy,” said Bryan Burhans, executive director of the Commission.
That’s no matter, Neville said. Statistics don’t make people feel safe.
And, he said, hikers fear three Sundays added to hunting season will, in time, become more.
They see this as a “camel’s nose under the tent kind of thing.”
And they don’t want that, Neville said.
“I don’t think it will stop at three days. This is just going to open the door to further Sunday hunting down the road,” Neville added.
So, he said, the Trails Association will work in the coming months to stop the bill in the House.
Laughlin admitted he’d like to add more Sundays in time. That’s how other states in the East have done things, expanding opportunities gradually over time.
He believes Pennsylvania would be wise to follow suit.
“What I really expect is, if we get these three through, and we have a year like that, everybody’s going to go, ‘Oh, that wasn’t a big deal.’ And if we want to add a couple more, I don’t think anyone’s going to complain,” Laughlin said.