Until recently, when someone who enjoys horseback riding in the Maryland countryside told me about a legislative effort to repeal the state's ban on Sunday hunting, I had no idea that such a prohibition was still in place. It struck me as archaic.
No hunting on Sunday seems like a blue law, after all, and many of the blue laws that prohibited us from doing certain things on the Christian day of rest were repealed decades ago. As a result, Sunday has become one of the busiest days of the week. Who knew hunting wasn't allowed?
Turns out, hunting generally has been prohibited on Sundays in Maryland since the early 18th century. For the longest time, the only exceptions were hunting with raptors, fox-hunting on horseback and hunting on game farms for pen-reared pheasant, bobwhite, partridge, "tower-released flighted mallards," and turkey — you know, the kind of "sport" in which a certain vice president of the United States was engaged when he gave a friend a birdshot sandwich. (Memorable David Letterman line: "Good news, ladies and gentlemen, we have finally located weapons of mass destruction. It's Dick Cheney.")
In 2003, the General Assembly made it possible for some rural Maryland counties to allow Sunday hunting on private land. Since then, there have been limited Sunday hunts, and the state says they have had a significant effect on a deer population that had been growing out of control.
Thinning the deer population is the main reason for the push to expand hunting into Sundays, says Paul Peditto, director of the Maryland Wildlife & Heritage Service.
This year the General Assembly considered lifting the ban in most Maryland counties, then voted to allow Sunday hunting in the four westernmost (Frederick, Washington, Allegany and Garrett) from October to January. The change will become law with the governor's signature.
Until now, Maryland was one of only about a dozen states that generally preserved the old restriction against Sunday hunting.
Last month in Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed a bill to allow it on private land.
In Pennsylvania, the leading Democratic candidate for governor has made it a campaign issue. Allyson Schwartz, a five-term member of Congress who supports gun control efforts, has pledged to support lifting the Sunday ban if she wins the gubernatorial election. That's no small campaign promise in a state that sells more than 900,000 hunting licenses a year.
Until their state lifts its ban, a lot of Pennsylvanians will come to Maryland to hunt deer on Sundays during the season, says Peditto. That's good for the state financially, he adds, and for thinning the deer herd. Sunday hunts mean more hunters have more time to bag hundreds more deer.
In the limited Sunday hunts held in 20 Maryland counties over the last decade, he says, both bow and firearms hunters have bagged nearly 50,000 deer. The state's deer population, estimated at about 300,000 only five years ago, has dropped by nearly a third, Peditto says.
But not everyone is happy about more the trend toward Sunday hunting. Maryland's horse-and-rider set objected.
Steuart Pittman, who handles legislative matters for the Maryland Horse Council, says his organization's main concern is public safety during deer season.
"People who ride horses, hike, bird-watch, mountain-bike or just want to enjoy the outdoors from October into January stay home when the hunters are out," he says. "Clubs schedule activities on Sundays because in some areas the woods are swarming with hunters on Saturdays during deer season."
Pittman is head trainer at his family's equestrian farm in Davidsonville. He understands the need to thin the deer population but objects to the state Department of Natural Resources pushing for Sunday hunting to do it.
"There are lots of solutions to the deer problem that do not sacrifice what we call 'safe Sundays,' " Pittman says, while listing a few: "Legalizing the sale of venison to incentivize more hunting of does, requiring that hunters kill one or more does before they are allowed to bag their prize buck, extending the season, facilitating more managed hunts and promoting the use of crop-damage hunting permits."
Pittman says that, on balance, Sunday hunting is a net loss for Marylanders. "It does not add significantly to the numbers of does killed. It simply takes away the one day of the week when people can safely enjoy the countryside."
Peditto insists that expanding hunting, particularly on Sundays on private land and state wildlife management areas, is the most cost-effective way to thin the deer population.
Regarding Pittman on safety — I get what he's saying. The mere worry about nearby hunters, even if they're hundreds of yards away, can take the fun out of a fall weekend of hiking, birding or even fishing.
But Peditto says there is no record of a hunter shooting a nonhunter in Maryland, and hunter-on-hunter shootings are rare.
Pittman says his group and others plan to build a coalition to back a "safe Sundays" bill in 2015 and increase public awareness of the trend toward Sunday hunting. So this battle isn't quite over.
Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.