Even by the standards of state legislatures, Feb. 11, 2011, made for a sad and stagey day in Frankfort, Ky. Inside the capitol building, a representative named Leslie Combs presented HB 1, a bill calling for an amendment to Kentucky's constitution that would protect the right to hunt. “People have hunted since the dawn of civilization,” she told her colleagues, “long before the formation of government.” Greg Stumbo, the speaker of the House (and, like Combs, a Democrat from eastern Kentucky), concurred. “Once it's enacted in the constitution,” he said, “you, your children, your grandchildren, nor their children or grandchildren will ever have to worry about it again.”
But it was never quite clear who was worried in the first place. Certainly, Kentucky's legislators didn't seem too concerned—so many were jabbering during Combs' speech that the speaker pro tem had to bang his gavel three times—and they mostly looked ready to move on. The bill passed easily, and 84 percent of Kentuckians voted in favor of the amendment this November, making the Bluegrass State the 17th in the nation to consecrate its right to hunt.
Why, if Kentucky’s gun rights were never in peril, did this bill exist in the first place? More than anything else, it was because the NRA wanted it to exist. When Leslie Combs intoned that “people have hunted since the dawn of civilization,” she wasn’t reciting words she’d written—she was reading directly from NRA talking points. Now, at a time when the NRA is laying low in the wake of the Newtown school shooting, the group's right-to-hunt efforts reveal its essential character. As the push in Kentucky shows, this is an organization that derives its power by cultivating and inflaming a base in gun-friendly states—and by concocting imaginary threats and pursuing redundant rights.
The exact mechanics of Kentucky’s right-to-hunt amendment remain cloudy. Combs and Stumbo, the co-sponsors of HB 1, did not respond to several interview requests. But I did talk to NRA spokeswoman Stephanie Samford a few days before the organization went into a post-Newtown media blackout. “It was initiated by the NRA,” Samford said of the Kentucky amendment. “We worked with the legislature to get it passed.” Still, she would not explain what that work entailed—nor was she able to cite any tangible threats to Kentuckians’ ability to hunt. “The NRA doesn't wait for problems to arise,” Samford said, pointing to the existence of “animal rights extremists.”
This same pattern—mysterious process, fuzzy threats—characterized the right-to-hunt debate in the Kentucky legislature. It’s an understatement to say that HB 1 passed easily in 2011; the house's final count was 94 votes yes and only one vote no, with Jim Wayne as the lonely dissenter. Wayne, a Democrat from Louisville, is no gun hater. In fact, his father taught him as a boy to skin squirrels and gut fish. What drove Wayne to oppose HB 1 was his belief that the amendment was frivolous. “The purpose of a constitution is to establish a basic framework for the government to operate in and to be flexible in,” Wayne tells me. “The hunting bill set a precedent for constitutional amendments that's bad for the state.”
Wayne first learned about HB 1 in his congressional carpool. Louisville's five state reps often ride together for the hour drive to Frankfort. It gives them a chance to strategize and to debate, but it also reminds them to stick together. “Politically,” Wayne says, “the major divide in Kentucky is not conservative vs. liberal but urban vs. rural.” (For many people—voters and legislators alike—this divide is symbolized and aggravated by the basketball rivalry between the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky.)
During one of those car rides, Wayne asked his colleague Darryl Owens about the rumblings he was hearing of a right-to-hunt amendment. “There had been no previous discussion on it,” Wayne says. “It kind of came out of nowhere.” Owens, who chairs the Elections, Constitutional Amendments, and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee, explained that Greg Stumbo, the speaker, was pushing for the amendment—and that he'd even given it the honorific designation of House Bill 1.
While Owens voted for the right-to-hunt bill, today he admits that it “didn't make much sense. Hunting doesn't seem to be in any jeopardy.” Still, with Stumbo behind it, the committee approved the bill without any discussion. The local press couldn't generate much back-and-forth, either. When news outlets flagged down animal-rights groups for the compulsory he-said, she-said quotations, they found that—in Kentucky at least—even PETA didn't oppose the right-to-hunt amendment. (The most a national PETA representative would say is that such amendments “are a solution in search of a problem.”)
In the capitol on that February day, Wayne made a similar point. After Combs finished reading her NRA-approved text, Wayne pressed the request-to-speak button on his desk. “Would the sponsor yield to a question?” he asked. “I've never in my 62 years felt a threat to my ability to either hunt or fish. Is there any documentation that says currently there is a threat to these liberties in our commonwealth?”