The NRA Is Larding State Constitutions with Frivolous, Redundant “Right To Hunt” Amendments

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Dec. 20 2012 1:26 PM

It’s Not Just the Second Amendment Anymore

How the NRA is larding state constitutions with frivolous, redundant “right to hunt” amendments.

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Combs forced a smile and cited all the other states that had passed right-to-hunt amendments: “States prior to us indicate that, uh, the need to basically endorse it as a right stands for itself.”

“Mr. Speaker,” Wayne asked, “would the lady yield to a second question?”

“No,” she replied.

That earned Combs a round of applause and even a few whoops from her fellow legislators. The day's most-telling line, though, came from Stumbo. “The National Rifle Association places this as their No. 1 priority,” the speaker said. In Kentucky, the NRA’s top priority instantly becomes important legislative business. Robert Damron, another Democrat and one of the house's strongest gun advocates (“We call him Bullet Bob,” says Wayne), estimates that “having the endorsement of the National Rifle Association is critical to legislators in 75 or 80 percent of the districts.” And that meant HB 1's passage was never in doubt. Once the bill was rolling, the NRA didn’t even have to do much lobbying. According to the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission, the group spent about $5,000 on HB 1 in February 2011, a figure that lagged well behind the state's biggest special interests. (That same month, the Kentucky Farm Bureau Federation spent about $17,000 on lobbying.)

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Still, the NRA has shown a willingness to invest in this issue when necessary. In Arizona, the only state so far where a right-to-hunt amendment has failed, the NRA sent someone to testify before the state legislature, then dropped more than $200,000 during the election. The group plans to advocate for future amendments as well. To date, the states that have passed right-to-hunt legislation are largely in the South (Arkansas, Alabama) and West (Nebraska, North Dakota). But the idea seems to be migrating east. Seven state legislatures broached it in 2012, including those in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. “We'll continue to work on passing this legislation in other states moving forward,” says Samford, the NRA spokeswoman.

What she means, of course, is in other state constitutions. That raises a larger point: More and more, we're seeing legislators and interest groups clutter our constitutions with current events. One reason the lines at Florida polling places stretched so long this November was that voters had to parse 11 different amendments to their state's constitution. Michigan voted on six new amendments, including ones on renewable energy and on collective bargaining. Aren't constitutions supposed to be foundational and philosophical documents—documents that are insulated from this kind of petty maneuvering?

It's a question worth asking of any new amendment, but there's a special irony when we apply it to the NRA and the right to hunt. While the NRA pushes an originalist agenda nationally, arguing that the constitutional protections of the Second Amendment should remain inviolable, the interest group is happy to muck around with constitutions on the state level. It's the wrong way to operate, no matter what your beliefs on gun control. Back in 1890, when Kentucky was debating its current constitution, a delegate argued for the importance of being able to “adapt it to the wants of the people when the emergency arises.” But pet issues aren't emergencies, and neither are opportunities for political gamesmanship. In Kentucky, Jim Wayne was brave enough to speak out against an ill-advised amendment. Let's hope a few more state politicians follow his lead.

Craig Fehrman, a graduate student in English at Yale, is writing a book on presidents and their books.